Monday 31 December 2012

'The Queen of Spades'

Farewell to 2012, and a Happy New Year to all our readers for 2013. Here's a stylish radio drama for the turning of the year, based on a classic weird tale from Russian literature. And the moral of the story is - do not wager anything on the turn of a card. As if you would.

Thursday 27 December 2012

Nights of the Round Table

The Christmas season is traditionally a time for tales of the supernatural, and this year I took advantage of some time away from the distractions of blogging and Facebookery to re-read one of the true classics of the genre. Margery Lawrence came to prominence in the decade after the Great War as an author of shorts stories, most of them weird or ghostly in nature. Her first collection, Nights of the Round Table, was reprinted in the Nineties by Ash-Tree Press in 1998. Richard Dalby edited and introduced the volume, heaping praise upon Lawrence for the diversity and originality of her work.

The dozen stories in the collection purport to be those told to the author by members of a select club that meets once a month. Thus January's tale is the first to be told, while December's is the last. Lawrence is in fact a bit erratic about the introductory matter, offering quite a build-up in some cases, while in others she plunges straight into the narrative. There's a slight touch of the John Silence about this, and indeed Lawrence was a convinced believer in the occult and attended many seances. However, unlike many spiritualists, she doesn't let her imagine limit itself to bland statements about the nature of the life to come.

Far from it. One of Lawrence's notable achievements in NotRT is to give a well-defined but still alarming picture of a supernatural world adjacent to ours, from which various disturbing entities may intrude from time to time. Thus in 'The Fifteenth Green', the construction of a new golf course necessitates the eviction of an eccentric old man living in an unlicensed shack. The old man, predictably enough, has had dealings with unholy beings. But the way in which Lawrence builds up from the initial dispute to the final scene of vengeance is a masterpiece of careful storytelling. She perfectly captures the way 'sensible chaps' wouldn't allow some odd occurrences put them off a round of golf - despite all the signs that they are heading for catastrophe at the eponymous hole.

Likewise 'The Woozle', a story in which a nursemaid invents a monster to keep a lonely child quiet, works as a clever evocation of the cruel mind-games adults often unwittingly play with the young. But it's also an original take on the idea of the dark entity that is summoned by human fear and credulity - if you believe in it, it will come. A similar idea, but one executed very differently, lies at the heart of 'Floris and the Soldan's Daughter', in which an unworldly law student becomes obsessed with a beautiful ivory figure. While 'The Woozle' resembles Wakefield's fiction in its focus on casual cruelty, 'Floris' has hints of Blackwood and Machen, particularly in the denouement, when it's not clear whether Floris has suffered a terrible or a wondrous fate. Perhaps he has earned both.

'Vlasto's Doll', by contrast, is somewhat Grand Guignol in its emphasis on abuse, revenge, and the evil shenanigans of a ruthless showman. The doll of the title is a larger-than-life thing apparently moved by some internal mechanism. But why is Vlasto's wife, whom he mistreats brutally, so essential to the working of an act she apparently takes no part in? Here the climax of the story is nightmarish, perhaps appropriately, given that the setting is Europe on the brink of the First World War. If so the doll, with its apparently scientific mechanism driven by fear and hate, might stand as a image of greater forces of destruction.

'The Haunted Saucepan' sounds absurd, but in fact it's a fine story and has rightly been anthologised more than once. The premise is simple enough - something bad happened in a London flat, and it is connected with a saucepan that seems to boil and bubble despite being empty on an unlit stove. The backstory is not especially original, but the execution is extremely good; Rosemary Pardoe has describe it as a story in best Jamesian tradition.

Slightly less effective, but still very good, are 'Death Valley' and 'The Curse of the Stillborn'. In both cases the theme is the collision of Western values with those of older, stranger cultures. In 'Death Valley' a group of white hunters insist on exploring an area shunned by natives, and encounter a nightmarish entity - perhaps a demon - in an abandoned farmstead. The others story is set in Egypt, and concerns a very believable instance of missionaries seeking to put down 'native superstition'. Instead the intruders encounter something more ancient than the pyramids - a thing bound in the wrappings of the tomb, and wearing a gilded mask...

Those are just some of the stories in a collection that offered me a satisfying bedtime read over the past few days. Nights of the Round Table is not easy to get hold of, but according to Ash-Tree's web site some copies are still available.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Review: Selected Stories, by Mark Valentine

The stories gathered here have all been published before, but many appeared in hard-to-obtain volumes. The unifying theme is the collapse of empires in the wake of the Great War. Europe, once 'the mighty continent', has been torn apart by years of brutal conflict. The vast majority of people found their lives disrupted, sometimes fatally, but often in bizarrely unpredictable ways. This much is fact. What Mark Valentine adds is his remarkable erudition as he offers us glimpses of the lives of aristocrats, villagers, aesthetes, and wandering visionaries (or charlatans), during a time when that fabulous phenomenon called balance of power is swinging wildly this way or that.

Indeed, the first story is entitled 'A Certain Power', and takes us among the various social classes and factions of Petrograd during the doomed attempt by the Western Allies to assist the White Russian cause. But the power in question is not an earthly one, and its emissaries have a most unusual mission. I found the story very satisfying - a sound example of a fantastical premise taken to a logical conclusion.

'The Dawn at Tzern', by contrast, is a tale of lesser beings - a provincial postal official who stages a small, almost secret, rebellion by not using newly-issued stamps. He prefers those featuring the old emperor Franz Joseph. The minor functionary's moral qualms are contrasted with the rough idealism of a leftist radical and the mystical, probably heretical, antics of the village priest. All await the dawn, and when a spectacular sunrise comes each sees in it the possible fulfilment of their hopes.

'The Walled Garden on the Bosphorus' is a slight tale of a learned man who 'collects' unusual faiths - heresies, cults, near-forgotten creeds. Felix Vrai (the name is surely significant) eventually vanishes, perhaps to search for his unorthodoxy of choice. Or perhaps he vanishes because he has found it. Also very short, but powerful in a Machenesque way, is 'The Amber Cigarette', in which a strange jewel - a 'sphere of worked jasper' - exerts an abnormal fascination. The jewel happens to adorn a cigarette case, and the story is as much a paean to the pleasures of tobacco (a topic that the young Machen explored) as it is a mystical vignette.

The next story, 'Carden in Capaea', is the tale of a tribe not so much lost as overlooked. The Capaean language intrigues a British adventurer, as he struggles to grasp a world (perhaps our 'real' world) that only needs to be truly named to be revealed. It's a somewhat Borgesian tale, or at least it reminded me of the latter's 'Undr', with its quest for a word that is all poetry in itself.

'The Bookshop in Novy Svet' rings the changes on the idea that language can alter reality - if we take the mathematics of the actuary to be a language as potent as the works of any poet. This deliberately Kafkaesque story even features (albeit peripherally) a Doctor K, who assists the Workman's Compensation Society. When he is made redundant the assistant actuary discovers poetry, and comes up with a clever scheme to make money by calculating when a given poet's works will rise sharply in value. But things do not work out quite as planned.

A personal favourite of mine is 'The Ka of Astarakhan'. Here is a first-person narrative given by a dying poet who is also, arguably, a mystic, a buffoon, a charlatan. Playful, intense, and ultimately moving, it is more of a testament to the value of a life lived boldly (if, at times, absurdly) amid the chaos of decaying cultures. It's also a quiet affirmation of the value of the short story, as - like a good poem - it demands to be read and grasped at one sitting.

'The Unrest at Aachen' is, I think, a story that lies somewhere between Machen and Chesterton (especially the latter's The Napoleon of Notting Hill). It's a story of how a minor operative of the Luxembourg secret service prevented a world war from breaking out in 1906. If that sounds slightly ludicrous, well it is in a way. But it's also a fable about the way myth and belief can shape history, for better or worse.

The final story, 'The Mascarons of the Late Empire', is so rich in ideas and imagery that it ought to form the seed-pearl of a fascinating novel. Set in the easternmost city of the recently-defunct Austro-Hungarian Empire, it explores the hazy territories between the personal and the political, as a proto-fascist movement arises, windows are smashed, Jewish graves desecrated, and a single language is imposed on a diverse citizenry. The characters all, in their different ways, represent old Europe, with its romance, stability and belief in progress. All are out of place in a more sordid and brutal world. Yet, the author suggests, there is still hope.

This book is arguably the best 'sampler' of Mark Valentine's highly-regarded fiction. While not every story can be deemed supernatural, they are all imbued with a strangeness and beauty that takes them - and the reader - several removes from what is called realism.

Monday 17 December 2012

The Bells (1926)

In my informal list of 'weird films to watch at Christmas', why not try this screen adaptation of the play that made Sir Henry Irving the first theatrical knight? The original play in which Irving became a Victorian sensation was by Erckmann-Chatrian, one of the great writing teams in horror/supernatural fiction. The film was made by a rather small firm and might have vanished without trace. We're lucky it's still around, because it's a fascinating historical time capsule, and quite entertaining in itself.

Set during a bad winter in 1868, the story concerns Mathias, a leading citizen of a small town in the mountains of southern Alsace. Mathias harbours ambitions to become burgomaster, and is thus keen to extend credit to the customers of his tavern and his flour mill. This upsets his wife, but does indeed guarantee him the support of the townsfolk. Unfortunately for Mathias, he is no position to be generous - he is deep in debt to an unpleasant local bigwig who will soon foreclose and take his property.

What to do? Well, it just so happens that at Christmas, during a terrible blizzard, a rich Jewish merchant travelling to Paris from Warsaw happens by the inn. Baruch (interestingly, given the period of the play and indeed that of the film) is presented as an amiable soul, but he is also incautious. He reveals to Mathias that he carries large sums in gold about his person. Cue an old-school melodramatic murder. The bells of the title are the sleighbells that jingle as poor Baruch breathes his last.

Well, Matthias is in the money. Unfortunately, he is also in a fictional town where a. a young Boris Karloff is playing a mesmerist who can look into 'the secrets of your soul' and b. he is a classic Victorian character, in that he is plagued by his conscience. Cue scenes involving the bells a-jingling, the ghost of Baruch returning (in one very good effects scene the merchant and his murderer play cards), and Mathias quite clearly cracking up. This performance, by the one-legendary Lionel Barrymore, is very theatrical, of course. But he does convey the torment of a man who believes himself to be good and seeks forgiveness, as opposed to the psychopathic type more commonly found in modern thrillers.

Anyway, if you're looking for unusual seasonal viewing, this one is on LoveFilm in an excellent restored version with a good soundtrack. The version on YouTube is less good but still watchable. And here's the first part.

Saturday 15 December 2012

The Yellow Leaves

A bit of blatant advertising, now, for the noble cause of publishing poetry on that stuff called paper that's still apparently being made somewhere. The Yellow Leaves series offers 'tantalising glimpses of a reality beyond our comprehension', and I'm sure we're all down with that. The third leaflet in the series features work by the excellent Cardinal Cox. And this is what one side of the 'paper' looks like...

Click to make it bigger so you can read the various bits. Note the reference to Ambrose Bierce's fictional medium, Bayrolles, who was always sticking his oar in to tie up a few loose plot strands. Also note links etc allowing you to contact D.J. Tyrer, editor of the series, and of course the cardinal himself.

He's making a list...

The Japanese horror movie boom launched a number of TV series that sought - quite reasonably - to cash in. One interesting series, which can be found in fragmentary form on YouTube, is entitled Kazuo Umezu's Horror Theater. Umezu  is a very popular manga writer, and I think the TV adaptations of his work are pretty good. The Diet, in particular, manages to pack a lot of disturbing stuff into a mere sixty-odd minutes. The reason I'm mentioning this in mid-December is simply that one of Mr Omezu's tales is a Christmas number entitled The Present. Here's how it starts - an object lesson in the need to be very careful what you tell children at this time year. I'm also impressed (though of course to the intended audience it would be unremarkable) by the juxtaposition of Shinto images with trad Christmassy stuff.

Christopher Conn Askew

Do you like this sort of thing?

Find out more about the artist here.

Saturday 8 December 2012

The Silent House (2010)

I've watched precisely one Uruguayan horror film so far, and I quite enjoyed it. The premise is simple - shy teenager Laura and her amiable old dad, the rather oddly-named Wilson, move into a remote, rather ramshackle house to do some gardening and generally tidy the place up. We first see them approaching the property through fields, climbing through fences and so on, establishing that, yes, it's kilometres from anywhere. At the house they meet the owner, an old friend of dad's, who helps them get settled in and promises to pop back with some food later.

So far, so familiar. We are expecting Something Sinister to happen. Sure enough, when Laura and her father settle down for the night, the girl hears someone outside. Her father is already asleep, of course, and when she wakes him up he tells her not to worry - there's nobody about. Then, when he nods off again, she hears someone moving about upstairs. They have been warned not to visit the upstairs rooms because of structural problems. But when she wakes dad again, and he sees she's in a bit of a state, he reluctantly agrees to investigate, if she promises to go to sleep when he gets back.

Needless to say, he doesn't get back. Instead Laura hears an ominous cry, followed by a dragging sound. Oo-er. We are well within conventional 'stalk-and-slash' territory, and we are less than half an hour into the movie (which runs for over ninety minutes). Not surprisingly, by this point I was starting to feel some irritation, muttering about derivative ideas and horror movie conventions. But I kept watching, partly because it is a visually arresting film. Despite the familiar setting (oh, look, a grotty kitchen, and here's a bedroom full of antique furniture) the director, Gustavo Hernandez, does a fine job of making the house genuinely eerie.

And, as the action develops, things do begin to take an odd turn - disturbing, rather than horrific. There is a 'secret room' upstairs, and during a couple of scenes we see what appears to be a child. Laura escapes from the knife-wielding killer (who we have glimpsed very briefly) and runs into the bush, only to encounter the house's owner. He insists on going on to the house and looking for his old friend Wilson, whereupon the killer gets him in the time-honoured fashion, leaving him bloodied and bound on the kitchen floor. He does not escape. But Laura does, in a way. The ending is strange, memorable, and has a touch of the fairytale. Whether this country as a supernatural horror film, I don't know. But it's certainly worth a look. And (predictably) there's already an American remake.

Firstly, this film is reportedly based on a real events that happened in Uruguay in 1944. Secondly - and this I find truly impressive - the entire film is shot in one long take. That take is 79 minutes long. I didn't know this until after I'd watched it, but thinking back there is no moment when an obvious 'jump' occurs. The camera follows Laura all the time. This makes the central performance by Florencia Colucci all the more impressive. At first I found her 'terrified little girl who jumps at everything' a bit irritating, wondering whether she would show a bit more fight and initiative. I needn't have worried. While it's not an especially scary movie, it is a remarkably accomplished one.

Thursday 6 December 2012

Of a book and its cover

The unexpected arrival of a beautiful book is always pleasant. In this case I know the book's contents will live up to its cover. Or rather, covers. Selected Stories by Mark Valentine, newly published by Swan River Press, has a rather splendid blue and gold dust-jacket, but beneath it we find this:

A slightly inept scan, but you get the picture, so to speak. 

A much cleverer person would see this beautiful, antique oil lamp as an apt metaphor - one that illuminates the stories gathered in this volume. According to the flyleaf, these stories 'are about individuals caught up in the endings of old empires - and of what comes next'. 

This is familiar territory for Valentine, one of the most intellectually accomplished authors of what is loosely termed weird fiction. I've long admired his work. Many authors have tackled the decline into chaos of Europe, once dubbed the mighty continent by someone or other (probably a Frenchman), now apparently far gone in stagnation and riven by internal dissent. In literary terms decay, uncertainty and failure are more interesting than rip-roaring success, unless of course the latter ends in some terrible disillusion. The power fantasies of politicians and the crazier revelations of prophets are more goal-orientated, of course. And then there are the artists, poets, visionaries, charlatans... I look forward to meeting them all in in these stories. 

The titles - rather wondrous in themselves - are as follows:
A Certain Power
The Dawn at Tzern
A Walled Garden on the Bosphoros
Carden in Capaea
The Bookshop in Novy Svet
The Autumn Keeper
The Amber Cigarette
The Ka of Astarakahn
The Original Light
The Unrest at Aachen
The Mascarons of the Late Empire
A mascaron is 'a decorative element in the form of a sculpted face or head of a human being or an animal'. Wonderful thing, the internet. Not all change is for the worse.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

'A Recluse'

One of Walter de la Mare's typically subtle stories. Recognise the reader?

Friday 30 November 2012

Mr Valentine's Tales

Swan River Press in Dublin is publishing a volume of Selected Stories by the redoubtable Mark Valentine, one of the most erudite and entertaining writers currently producing supernatural fiction. Here is the blurb:

In St. Petersburg, amidst an uneasy truce with the revolution, there exists a secret trade in looted ikons. But who are the dark strangers seeking for the Gate of the Archangel? In the small town of Tzern, news arrives of the death of the Emperor; meanwhile a postmaster, a priest, a prophet and a war-wearied soldier watch the dawn for signs of the future. Constantinople: A quest for the lost faiths of the former Ottoman Empire leads a French scholar to believe that the strangest may also be the truest. On the edges of Europe, exiles and idealists meet in a café to talk of their hopes—while sinister forces begin to march. These stories, exquisitely told by Mark Valentine, are about individuals caught up in the endings of old empires—and of what comes next.

Leave Your Sleep

I'm enjoying this collection of R.B. Russell stories from PS Publishing. It has, however, led me once again to ponder the eternal, unanswerable question - what makes a successful supernatural tale? Not all of the stories here could be classed as supernatural in the conventional sense, but they all play fast and loose with the conventions of realistic narrative. But few qualify as ghost stories and some lie outside the roomier bounds of 'weird fiction'. And I can imagine people who insist on having all the plot threads tied up neatly getting rather cross with this book, because in most cases neat solutions are not what the story is about. Instead, the author offers imagery and ideas to stimulate the reader's imagination, much as a poet might do.

I can be reasonably sure that Ray Russell is drawing upon Continental or Latin American influences rather than the Anglo-American ghost/horror tradition. For instance, 'A Woman of the Party' is, on the face of it, an account of how the female protagonist's personal life is inextricably entangled with the machinations of a totalitarian state (which I took to be East Germany). However, one early incident suggests that something odd is going on - or rather, something odder than living in a society that plants cameras and microphones in your home. There is a time-twisting element, perhaps, but what the story's denouement suggested to me was that, under an oppressive regime, nothing natural to human beings can flourish. Even the most essential truths that we take for granted (in this case, that a child cannot be both born and unborn at the same time) are distorted or destroyed.

The opposite world view seems to prevail in 'The Red Rose and the Cross of Gold', in which a rather mundane account of two men sharing a flat turns into a murder non-mystery i.e. there's no doubt as to who is murdered. But the twist, if that's the right word for it, is that the killer can get away with it because reality can be adjusted to take account of his little problem. The idea that reality as we perceive it is more a matter of stage dressing and can be modified by an effort of will in the right conditions is also central to 'The Restaurant San Martin'. Again, I was left unsure as to the moral or indeed philosophical position I was supposed to adopt. Consider: if all we think of as the world is mere shadow play or illusion, why get worked up when someone is stabbed or shot? In a way this is anti-Lovecraftian fiction - in the world of the Mythos, reality is a roiling nightmare of horrific beings just waiting to pounce. But the 'real reality' can be seen very differently.

More conventional is 'Unconventional Exorcism', which has an almost Alan Bennett-like feel at times - an impression created, perhaps, by multiple references to macaroons. It works rather well as a ghost story using the familiar but not too common device of the medium who is confronted by the very real spirit of someone they had been stringing along with a load of old guff. The more substantial story, 'Leave Your Sleep', also offers ghostly antics, but is more powerful and enigmatic. It's a very successful recreation of a particular stage of childhood, when it becomes vital to keep secrets from grown-ups and be thought 'cool' by our peers. In the story, a boy staying with his grandparents is invited to join the games of the children next door - in a house that appears to be uninhabited. Here is a more conventional story, but one with enough original oddities to stick in the memory.

In several stories people have accidents or are otherwise jolted loose from conventional life and ways of seeing. Thus in 'The Dress' (which first appeared in ST) a woman is baffled by the place of her awakening and does not recognise herself in a bedroom mirror. The story can be read as a straight narrative of someone with obvious emotional problems, or as someone who falls 'under the spell' of a remarkable garment. I think that ambiguity serves the reader well, but again those who like everything neatly tied up might be a bit peeved.

And note, I've written all those paragraphs above without once using the word 'Aickmanesque'. However, Aickman's influence is apparent on Russell's work. Aickman's stories are formally conventional (no fancy typological tricks, somewhat staid prose) but defy the conventions of realistic narrative to some extent. The obvious problem with this - as someone said of free verse - is that it can be like playing tennis with the net down. Where anything is permitted, nothing is interesting. So the author of any story that rejects a realistic explanation (or indeed an unrealistic one, like 'the vampires did it') has set himself a double challenge - to entertain the reader while to some extent failing to satisfy the reader's pre-programmed expectations about what a good story is and does. I think Russell succeeds, more or less. But it's not an easy row to hoe, especially if you start out by doubting the objective existence of your agricultural implement.

Anyway, I have not finished the book yet. Expect a full review in ST#23.

Thursday 29 November 2012

Crickley Bulletin

I'm still enjoying The Secret of Crickley Hall on the jolly old BBC. With two out of three episodes down I'm beginning to see the light. I noted some familiar James Herbert ingredients, notably some tricksiness over identity, and the tendency of people with psychic powers to get in harm's way, swear off it all, then go and do it all over again. The ugly side of UK history is also a Herbertian trope, and here it's amply illustrated by the 'baddies', with their pro-Nazi sympathies. Oh, and there's sex. For good characters sex is honest and loving, even if prudes and hypocrites disapprove. For bad characters sex is always something furtive and sordid, and linked to some great wrongdoing. That's not always how it goes in a Herbert story, but it's the way to bet.

I can also see why Joe Ahearne wanted to adapt and direct. The story offers a powerful mixture of the claustrophobic (people in an isolated house with the ghost of a sadist) with the careful unfolding of two plot lines which both offer some good twists. The historical past, far from being dead, lives on and interacts with the present in real life, but sometimes the ghost story reminds us of this more powerfully than any 'realistic' plot device can. There's also some typical gallows humour and a sense of high stakes being played for that Ahearne brought to Ultraviolet and the less acclaimed, but still interesting Apparitions. As in those earlier series, there's the conviction that individual actions do matter, no matter how Quixotic they may seem, and no matter what sacrifices may be required. However, if you want to read Ahearne's own views on it all, they are blogged here.

Incidentally, for e-reader types, the script of episode one can be downloaded here. I find scripts sometimes cast interesting sidelights on what we've seen - or think we've seen. Here's the opening scene, with that familiar but very effective trope - the apparently innocent children's game with a menacing subtext.


Six year old STEFAN runs from the big grey stone slab of

Crickley Hall, more institutional than residential.

Children singing.


On the farm no poor rabbit

Comes to harm because I grab it

They jump and frolic whenever I go by

They know I help 'em to dodge the rabbit


A figure grabs him by the collar and lifts him off his feet.

Stefan kicks wildly in mid-air as he pivots to face his

tormenter. Terrified that it might be:

AUGUSTUS CRIBBEN. We don’t see his face yet.


You’re mine.

Stefan screams.

Sunday 25 November 2012

Ghost Stories on the talking-type wireless

This time of year is traditionally the season when BBC schedulers get out old boxes of stuff, rummage around a bit, and find some spooky stuff. Fortunately, some of this spooky stuff is pretty good. On Radio 4 Extra, for instance, each weekend - just after the stroke of midnight on Saturday - sees the rebroadcast of readings of some of Walter de la Mare's greatest hits. The first, 'All Hallows', is read by Richard E. Grant. The other stories (by various readers) are 'Crewe', 'Seaton's Aunt', 'The Almond Tree', and 'A Recluse'.

Saturday 24 November 2012

The Secret of Crickley Hall

Joe Ahearne, best known to genre fans for his excellent Eighties series Ultraviolet, directs a brand-new adaptation of a James Herbert novel for the BBC. All a bit of a surprise to me, as I'd always assumed that Herbert is not the sort of modern novelist who sets pulses racing at the Beeb. But I have to say that The Secret of Crickley Hall is rather good. At least, the first episode proved sufficiently well-crafted and absorbing to keep me guessing and watching.

Telling two linked stories set in the present day and World War 2, the first episode managed to dodge the clichés of the genre yet also captured the authentic atmosphere of the traditional supernatural tale. Put simply, something bad happened to a nice family (no spoilers here) and this terrible event shaped the characters' reactions to strange occurrences at their new home. The cast is strong; David Warner and Douglas Henshall both get to play against type, and its nice to see youngsters like Maisie Williams (Arya in Game of Thrones) given credible characters. Indeed, there wasn't a false note in the first hour; it was an effective drama which happened to involve paranormal events.

All in all, it's heartening to see the BBC make a short serial solidly rooted in the great tradition of British ghostly fiction and put it on at 9pm on a Sunday. If this heralds a newfound enthusiasm for this sort of drama... Well, let's not get carried away.

Friday 23 November 2012

Casting the Runes: the movie?

From our 'What? Really?' department comes news of a film based on M.R. James 'Casting the Runes', and directed by Joe Dante, famed for such much-loved Eighties fare as The Howling and Explorers. Steve Duffy, one of the top-flight authors who gave early issues of ST a lot of credibility, just drew my attention to this:

When up-and-coming actor Jake Harrington inexplicably hurls himself in front of an oncoming subway train, celebrity gossip blogger Mark Dunning smells a story in Harrington's connection to self-help guru Simon Karswell. What Dunning isn't prepared for is the secret behind Karswell's motivational-speaker success: a command of dark occult forces that reveals his following to be more cult than therapy. Harrington had insisted that Karswell had summoned something with tools he called "runes," raising a being that was stalking Harrington with intent to kill.

Karswell makes it clear to Dunning that he doesn't want him pursuing the story, and that he could "cast the runes" on Dunning just as he did on Harrington - and Dunning is sufficiently unnerved to question it himself.

That is, until Lila James, the famed, gorgeous and grieving actress girlfriend of Harrington, turns to Dunning for help: she knows Harrington wanted out of Karswell's cult, and Karswell was unwilling to let him go. Now, she fears that she too is trapped, and sees in Dunning an ally in helping her escape. Unable to resist both her and the story possibilities, he agrees to help.

But Karswell isn't eager to let such a jewel in his cult's crown leave so easily - now, Dunning will learn what Jake Harrington learned before him: when Simon Karswell casts the runes, a clock starts ticking. Three days after Dunning receives a strange message from Karswell, the thing that came for Harrington will come for him... and with every second, it's getting closer - unless Dunning can find a way to stop it, and cast the runes back on Karswell.

Interweaving elements of a noir crime tale with the chills of an occult thriller in the tradition of THE OMEN, CASTING THE RUNES is a contemporary spin on the classic story by M.R. James, employing elements not only from that tale, but offering as well a veritable greatest hits of James's classic nightmares - including legendary masterworks like "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come You, Lad" and "The Mezzotint." Nobody made spectral monsters like M.R. James, and the best are all here. Parading his most chilling visions across the screen, CASTING THE RUNES brings the greatest ghost stories - and the greatest ghost story writer - of all time, firmly into the twenty-first century.
Now that looks pretty good to me. The blurb at least shows appreciation of James' work and it makes perfect sense to flesh out the not-really-feature-length title story with some other ingredients. The film is listed as in development by the imdb site, with a release date of 2013. Of course, a project can be stuck in development hell for years, if not decades, so we can believe in Casting the Runes when it's actually, erm, cast. But this is all very interesting.

Thursday 22 November 2012


Another little trailer for the next issue of ST, no. 23, which is due out by next April (probably). 'Ilona' is a short-short story by leading Queen Victoria impersonator Tina Rath, and concerns the tribulations of a hard-working employee of Britain's famous National Health Service. Like many thousands of others, Ilona has come to England from Eastern Europe to take up a low-paid manual job. Drudgery is the key word, here, as our protagonist cleans corridors, far from the light of day. But what else might be going on in Ilona's mop-centric world?
She mopped languidly. She stopped to rest her back. And when the Supervisor reappeared towards the official end of her shift the long corridor was not even half finished. 
“Oh, dear!” she exclaimed, with barely concealed pleasure. “ I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to finish this floor before you go off.”

Any of the other ladies would have launched into a voluble account of the unpredictability of night buses, the danger of the night-time streets, the anxiety of her hubby if she wasn't home on the dot, finishing with a half plea, half threat relating to the union. But Ilona only bent her head and said, meekly, “I finish it.”
Of course, it's not just the floor that's finished.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

The Sea Change & Other Stories

A new book from Swan River press showcases the short fiction of Helen Grant, two of whose stories appeared in early issues of ST. One of those stories, 'The Sea Change', gives its title to the collection; it's a powerful and enigmatic tale of a diver who becomes obsessed with the wreck of an ancient ship, and undergoes a strange and unpleasant tranformation.

The contents are as follows:

Grauer Hans
The Sea Change
The Game of Bear
Self Catering
Nathair Dhubh
Alberic de Mauléon
The Calvary at Banská Bystrica

Two stories, 'The Game of Bear' and 'Alberic de Mauleon', were produced for competitions in the Ghosts & Scholars newsletter, and I can testify to their excellence. Sadly, though, Brian Showers of Swan River tells me this book is unlikely to be out in time for Christmas - however, it will be published early in the New Year.

The picture below is the excellent cover by Jason Zerillo.

Monday 19 November 2012

Review: The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows

At the end of the last century (which now seems quite a while back) Ghosts & Scholars ceased publication as a fiction magazine and became a twice-yearly newsletter dedicated to topics M.R. Jamesian. Over the last couple of years, however, editor Ro Pardoe has published a number of short stories, after inviting readers to finish off or flesh out ideas (such as the mysterious 'game of bear') that James abandoned or never got round to fleshing out. The best stories were published in the newsletter and proved very popular.

So successful were these competitions that - to write entirely new prequels or sequels to any of M.R. James' published tales. A dozen of these new stories were selected by Ro Pardoe for publication by Robert Morgan's Sarob Press in a fine edition with an excellent cover by Paul Lowe, showing the thing of ''Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You My Lad'' wafting its way up the shingle.

The stories gathered here fall into two obvious categories - prequels and sequels - and most authors favour the latter. There is one other important subdivision, though. While most authors make it clear which of James' works is being referenced, some keep the reader guessing - and I won't give the game away here. 

The winner of the Ghosts & Scholars competition is a sequel, 'Quis Est Iste?' by Christopher Harman - hence the cover illustration, which serves for both James' story and this sequel. Here we discover just what 'rude Mr Rogers' got up to when he returned to the scene of Professor Parkins' worst ever vacation. There is a strange, nightmarish quality about the story, and Harman leads the reader to a climax that offers something new and disturbing, while keeping to the spirit of the original. 

Among the prequels are two compelling longer tales. Helen Grant offers a surprising insight into the early life of 'Canon Alberic de Mauleon', surprising your humble reviewer with an old-school plot device. A different old school features in 'Between Four Yews', in which Reggie Oliver provides a very solid and absorbing revenge narrative. The comparatively slight 'A School Story' might have been inserted into Oliver's tale as a relatively minor episode. 

Some of the shorter stories take one ingredient from an original story and explore possibilities. Thus Jacqueline Simpson, in 'The Guardian', considers how modern scholars might get Abbott Thomas' treasure without incurring any nasty penalties. Her solution is ingeniously straightforward. Very different is 'Anningley Hall. Early Morning' by Rick Kennett. Here the author proposes a rational but still startling reassessment of the story within the story in 'The Mezzotint'. A more straightforward sequel is 'Malice' by David A. Sutton, in which an inanimate object is deemed to be responsible for a terrible domestic tragedy. But which object is really to blame?

The story 'Two Doctors' is not very popular even with James addicts, and I was surprised to see Mark Valentine tackle it. In 'Fire Companions' we are granted a glimpse of what may be the central drama of that obscure tale. But Valentine also gives us a well-crafted insight into the mental torment of the villain of the piece, who did not really profit from his dabbling in the dark arts.

'The Mezzotaint', by John Llewellyn Probert, is very different again. Here we have a rather jolly variation on the old horror film setup, involving two doctors discussing just how deranged a patient appears to be. And, as we all know, in this setup the apparently mad patient has some insight into a rather unpleasant truth. Uniquely, this story offers a sci-fi twist to the idea of living pictures, playing fast and loose with the idea of the moving image as the source of horror.

Among the stories where the original tale is kept obscure till the end is Derek John's 'Of Three Girls and Their Talk', which begins as a period tragic-comedy but soon moves into strange territory. A conventional folk belief, and the advice of a 'wise woman', prove fateful to the eponymous young ladies, whose only real crime is to want to marry a rich husband and avoid the workhouse. In C.E. Ward's 'The Gift', by contrast, the wealth that is being sought might well help with the upkeep of a rural parish. A somewhat over-curious clergyman pays a heavy price when he ignores some fairly explicit warnings. In both cases the author's plan is to keep the reader guessing as to which Jamesian horror is lurking offstage, and they both manage very well.

Sometimes the original story offers more of a jumping off point for a rather different kind of tale. Thus in Louis Marvick's slightly Gothic 'The Mirror of Don Ferrante', the auctioning of Mr Karswell's possessions puts into circulation an item that might have been better left in storage. As with most of the stories here, the style is not Jamesian, but the careful construction and use of an ingenious device show his influence.

The final story, 'Glamour of Madness', takes its cue from a telling but easily-overlooked detail in 'A Vignette'. Building on this central idea, Peter Bell offers a rather harrowing account of a fixed idea that comes to possess a girl, and provides a satisfyingly Jamesian explanation for her fate. As with most of the longer tales, this one has a framing narrative. But Bell also prefaces it with a quote from M.R. James that, I think, sums up the continuing appeal of his best stories. It begins:

'Are there here and there sequestered places where some curious creatures still frequent...?'

In this book the authors take us to various sequestered places, and point to what might seem first to be merely shadows. This is, I think, a must for admirers of M.R. James, not least because it shows how influential his ideas about the ghost story still are.

Thursday 15 November 2012

A fact or two about the next ST

At the moment I'm sort of working on ST#23, due out next spring (i.e. before April). One of the authors in what is frankly a galaxy of talent is Iain Rowan. A thriller writer who dabbles in horror and the supernatural,  Iain has undertaken the distinctly challenging task of writing one very short story for every week of the year. He does this by the perfectly simple method of picking a song, then writing a story to fit the song in some way. The results are here.

The story that Iain submitted to ST, and which you'll be able to read next year, is entitled 'The Singing', and it doesn't seem to require any proofing because he's one of those careful writers who takes punctuation and such very seriously. Also, it's a good story. In fact, it's the sort of eerie fantasy that might have been written by any really good short story writer in the middle years of the last century.

Set on an unnamed but probably Hebridean island at some unspecified time (but probably before electricity), 'The Singing' is the tale of what happens after a mysterious stranger is washed ashore. At first it seems that the man is mute, as all the islanders' questioning fails to elicit a word from him. But then he is taken to the chapel, and something strange and wonderful happens. Needless to say, when wonderful things happen, not everyone is delighted. All in all, it's a poetic and mysterious tale, but one that works as an artistic whole.

Iain Rowan's website is here.

Saturday 10 November 2012

Nunkie News

Nunkie Productions, fronted by the excellent Robert Lloyd Parry, is on the road again with a 'Black Pilgrimage' of M.R. James shows. This autumn Robert is offering the waiting masses 'Count Magnus' and 'Oh Whistle...'.

By the magic of Facebook, I also have news of next year's shows. Let me hand you over to Roger:

For those of you who live in or near London, Nunkie is making a rare trip within the M25 in early 2013 - the 18, 19 and 20th January will see 'Count Magnus' and 'A Warning to the Curious' performed at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington, a really nice theatre above a really nice pub.
You can book tickets here
please spread the word...

There'll also be a run in The Brewery Theatre, Bristol in February - contact me for now if you need more details.

Also 3 nights at the Leper Chapel in Cambridge in January - again, reservations for the time being can be made by emailing me.
And there's more. I almost emitted what the young folk call a 'skwee' when I read to the end of this bit...
New non- MRJ show
In 2013 Nunkie will at last be breaking free from the shackles of M R James. In a collaboration with the Lowry Theatre in Salford and Harrogate Theatre, I shall be doing a new one man show based on H G Wells's sci-fi classic 'The Time Machine.' This will première in June. Watch this space for more news...
'The Time Machine' is one of my essential books - I reread it every year or so. Of course, now I see that it's an obvious choice for a one-man show. A wonderful prospect. Perhaps Robert is just going to do shows based on all my favourite books? Maybe I should send him a list, save the mucking about.

Let's round off with a quick trailer for one of Nunkie's DVDs (ideal Christmas presents, I think).

Thursday 8 November 2012

Various bits of Stokerism...

Well, obviously there's all that stuff about Dracula...

But there's also The Jewel of the Seven Stars (aka Curse of the Blood from the Mummy's Tomb Doom Sort of Thing)

And there's Dracula (working under an assumed name)...

Then there's The Lair of the White Worm, which was weird till Ken Russell got his mitts on it, whereupon it became delightfully loopy... Ooh, look, it's Hugh Grant!

So, Happy Birthday, Bram Stoker. 

Bram Stoker´s 165th Birthday - Dracula Google Doodle

Wednesday 7 November 2012

His Last Case

I like to bring you updates of what ST authors are up/down/sideways to these days. Stone Franks (yes, it's a nom de plume) wrote a tale of lycanthropy for ST#14, and has now published a tale of detection for the Kindle.

Not sure what His Last Case is about, but from the blurb I detect a hint of Sherlock Holmes spoofery:

Fresh from the Case of the Forced Coprophagia-By-Proxy Protagonist, Snowdonia Browne -Amateur Detective investigates mysterious and baffling slayings in a coastal resort. Has the gentleman sleuth met his match this time? Only snuff, eastern mysticism, and cunning gadgetry will decide.

Tuesday 6 November 2012

Call for Submissions - Tartarus Press

I mentioned last month that World Fantasy Award-winning Tartarus are calling for submissions to a special profits-go-to-charity anthology called Dark World. Well, let me add that Tartarus are also seeking submissions for the latest volume in their regular anthology series, Strange Tales IV. So here are two opportunities for you writer types.

For the Dark World anthology, which is being edited by Tim (scion of the house of Ray and Rosalie), the details are as follows:
Subject matter and style : Tim would like to receive previously unpublished ghost stories (fiction) suitable for a general audience.
Although stories should offer more than a "pleasing terror", they should not contain anything too graphic or gratuitous.
Word count: Stories should be between 2,000 and 7,000 words.Closing date for submissions: 31st December, 2012.
Payment: Authors will receive two copies of the published book. Copyright remains with the author.  
Electronic submissions should be sent to He would prefer to receive your work as an attachment to an email.
For Strange Tales IV, this is what's wanted:
Subject matter and style : We would like to receive previously unpublished literary strange tales.
Word count: Stories should be between 2,000 and 10,000 words.
Closing date for submissions: 31st July, 2013.
Payment: Authors will receive three hardback copies of the published book.
Electronic submissions should be sent to We would prefer to receive your work as an rtf attachment.

Competition Time!

For no particular reason, here's an extract from a very well-known ghost story of yesteryear/yore. Published a long time ago, anyway, and much anthologised since. Name that story and the author!

I supposed my Hermes, as he led me to the lower regions, had had a little grog, but I said nothing, and followed him.

Swan River Press - cover art competition

I'm sorry, this one passed me by a bit and now you've only got till the 10th Nov to submit your cover art. Will it be enough? I don't know. If you name is something like Giotto or Leonardo you might be able to do a quick sketch. Anyway, the facts are here:

The winner's artwork will adorn the cover of the Sampler for first half of 2013. Artwork dimensions should be 198 mm x 129 mm (oriented portrait, as opposed to landscape), and in keeping with the Swan River Press aesthetic.

Sunday 4 November 2012


Tartarus Press, one of the best-known and most respected small press outfits in the UK, has won a World Fantasy Award. It's about time, too, as they've been producing excellent books since the Nineties. More news of awards here.

It's also worth noting that Alan Garner (The Owl Service, among others) and George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) received Lifetime Achievement Awards. Both writers rose to prominence when I was a lad, so it's rather heartening to see them achieve official Grand Old Man status, especially since both are still producing new works.

Wednesday 31 October 2012

The Shining - Sweded

October Dreams

Enjoy Michael Kelly's splendidly atmospheric vignette from the latest issue. Music by Tony Tooke, reading by yours truly. Shades of Bradbury and the Twilight Zone on All Hallows' Eve.

Online seance

'Tis nearly the Witching Hour, by Greenwich Mean Time anyway, so I offer you, my insomniac or differently-time-zoned reader, a special treat. An online psychic reading! The spirits move through me, and thanks to them I can reveal your inmost secrets...

Do you have a name beginning with a letter of the alphabet?

Yes, I know, it's spooky, but stay with it...
Have you ever been really disappointed?

Did it involve love, money, or possibly something else?

Is the colour blue, the number three, or a large watermelon important in your life?

What's that crawling up your leg?

Perhaps I should end this psychic session now, lest I go too far. And I must stress that psychic powers are not to be meddled with by the uninitiated. Check out Mr Nude...

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Call for submissions

Tartarus Press are seeking stories for a special anthology of ghost stories. It's entitled Dark World and details can be found on the TP website here.

Publication is scheduled for February, so get a wiggle on, authors!

Sunday 28 October 2012

Halloween Horror Films to Watch Drunk With Friends

Sometimes you watch a film sober. Sometimes you watch a film drunk, preferably with friends. With the latter viewing experience in mind, here are a few ideas for viewing 'pleasure' that might make this Halloween special. It all depends on your definition of special.

1. Planet of the Vampires (1965)
A fairly bad Italian sci-fi caper that, oddly enough, seems to foreshadow Ridley Scott's Alien. It's notable as an early effort by legendary giallo nutcase Mario Bava. It's about this planet, and when they land on it, there are vampires or maybe zombies. Some stuff happens, but really it's more a series of incidents held together with variable acting and interesting costume choices. I quite like the spaceship.

2. Deathline (1973)
Also knows as Raw Meat, this is the one about cannibals on the London Underground. I'm not really giving much away because it's obvious quite early on that we're dealing with the degenerate survivors of a Victorian tunnel collapse... Look, it really makes no sense but Donald Pleasance plays a grumpy, sweary detective, Christopher Lee pops round for his cheque, and it's all good grubby fun - dolly birds and a bucket of blood. To be fair, this is a visually well-crafted film with a lot going for it, but the premise is so bizarre it often feels like a black comedy even if that wasn't the idea.

Death Line Poster

3. Love At First Bite (1979)
A spate of strange Dracula variants emerged in the Seventies, almost as if everyone recognised that the franchise was in need of a drastic rethink. Oddly enough, nobody suggested sparkling. Instead there was spoofery. I have a soft spot for George Hamilton IV's count, who's forced to relocate to New York and gets entangled in a love battle for a beautiful model. His rival in love just happens to know what he's up against, more or less...

4. Asylum (1972)
A good portmanteau effort scripted by Robert Bloch and starring Robert Powell as a doctor seeking employment at the eponymous establishment. In an unorthodox approach to recruitment, he is challenged by the director (Patrick Magee) to identify which of the inmates is the newly-deranged staff member whose descent into loopiness has created the vacancy. Needless to say, Powell's Dr Martin (not to be confused with Doc Martin) has a merry old time as we find out just why the patients are all deemed incurably insane. If you think this film is insensitive to the important issue of mental health, you'd be right - it's alternate title was House of Crazies. But it's got a shedload of real stars, starting with Peter Cushing.

Edith Nesbit's ghostly tales

After going on about M.R. James (admittedly in his 150th anniversary year) it's only fair to mention other fine ghost story writers of the early 20th century. One of the leading ladies of the era was E. Nesbit, who is deservedly famous for her children's books. However, she also wrote some cracking weird tales, and dramatised versions of five of them can be heard on Radio 4 Extra next week.

The stories are 'The Violet Car', 'John Charrington's Wedding', 'Man-Size in Marble', 'The Shadow', and 'The Ebony Frame'. And a link to the Edith Nesbit Society? You're welcome.

Friday 26 October 2012

Farewell, stately ash?

M.R. James' 'The Ash-Tree' is one of my favourite ghost stories, not least because of the weirdly nasty pay-off  I mean, who'd have thought that she would have... you know... Deeply disturbing ideas.

But it seems that the ash tree in the English countryside might soon be a thing of the past.
"Thousands and thousands" of ash trees could die at a nature reserve where symptoms of Chalara dieback have been seen, Suffolk Wildlife Trust has said. 
The disease was reported to have wiped out 90% of ash trees in Denmark and earlier in the week was confirmed at Pound Farm, near Great Glemham. 
The trust said symptoms had now been found at its Arger Fen and Spouse's Vale reserve, near Sudbury. 
A spokesperson for Suffolk Wildlife Trust said they were "very concerned".

And where is 'The Ash-Tree' set? 'Castringham Hall in Suffolk'. It may be that, in a few years' time, the story will seem markedly more dated, more emphatically a thing of the past, because what is now a very familiar tree will be gone from the landscape of Suffolk and indeed the entire British mainland. A sad thought.

The Witches Maze

... might be a good title for a story, but is in fact very much a real thing. It's a memorial to 11 witches who were legally killed in Scotland in 1662. According to the BBC report:
The castle was once home to William Halliday and his son John who held court over the 'covens' in the village. 
Lord Moncrieff, who now owns Tullibole, commissioned the maze as there is no memorial in Crook of Devon. 
In 1662 the court sat five times and resulted in the death of 11 suspected witches. 
Those who survived the trials were taken to a small mound near the current village hall and strangled by the common hangman and their bodies thrown on a fire. 

 Whiches Maze

The central pillar of the maze (commenced on the orders of Lord Moncrieff in 2003) bears the names of the victims on its five sides. You can find out more about the background to the trials and the victims here. The pillar was carved by Gillian Forbes.

The maze naturally made me think of M.R. James' story 'Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance', a personal favourite of mine. That was the work of James Wilson, an 18th century scholar of the dark arts who might well have been a witch. It's notable that one of the names above is Wilson. Coincidence, I'm sure...

There are of course a good few mazes in tales of the supernatural, not least the crop maze in Carole Tyrrell's story 'The Rustling of Tiny Paws', which features in the latest ST. I wonder if anyone will be spooked by the maze at Tullibole Castle, given that these things are designed to disorientate and generally shake people up?

Thursday 25 October 2012

Egyptian Interlude - Terrors of the Nile?

Interesting comment from Sam on my Halloween Movie post 'Blood from the Mummy's Tomb'.
What scared at that age was its Ancient Egyptian-ess, in that I didn't know any remedies against anything that came from that era. I vaguely knew about how to avoid/fight vampires, witches and WW2 German and Japanese soldiers, but not what to do about that culture...
I can see how that might have been worrying. But, oddly enough, my own response was the exact opposite. To me there was never anything intrinsically scary about Ancient Egypt except for the mummies, which were magically reanimated corpses. All the other stuff was too alien to be worrying.

And the more I found out about Egypt the more non-threatening it seemed. Here was a culture that valued life so much that its people wanted another go, so to speak, anticipating an afterlife full of the pleasures of this world. They enjoyed food, drink, music, love and friendship, and the good things in general. Their world was sunlit and optimistic. They were obviously a smart, sexy, warm people - I mean, they even wanted their pets to join them in the life to come.

Compare and contrast, as they say, the bright and colourful Egyptian world with the Calvinistic bleakness of damnation. The Christian mythology of most horror films was, for me, infused with a very plausible Northern darkness. I had seen grey, miserable churches all too often, heard the bleak, minatory words of scripture (and the rather unconvincing stuff about love and redemption), read of witch trials and heresy hunts. This was in the DNA of my own culture, and very nasty it was.

Having said that, here's a VHS rip of a TV movie from the Seventies which does its level best to conjure up the darkness of the Egyptians. It's a bit slow and obviously not a big-budget effort, but is a Robert Bloch story. I remember being quite impressed when it was run on ITV in my early teens, and rewatching it - while there are some unintentionally funny moments - it hangs together fairly well. Anyway, let me introduce you to... The Cat Creature!

Leave Your Sleep

Ray Russell tells me that he has a new book out. The collection, from PS Publishing, is available in hard cover and runs to over 200 pages. Here's the blurb from PS Publishing.

Following on from Literary Remains, R.B. Russell’s previous collection for PS Publishing, the twelve stories of Leave Your Sleep concern sex and death, love and loss. Russell allows his characters to disappear, slip into alternate realities, or re-write their own histories. They find they are able to do the most extraordinary things, even though they may not immediately realise it. And who is in control of their actions, or those around them?

If you want to know more, here is a link to PS. As you can see from the cover, it's a rather classy book.

Incidentally, Leave Your Sleep includes Ray's sexy story 'The Dress', which was published in ST under a cunning pseudonym. Which raises the question - are any other famous persons publishing under assumed names? You never know.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Halloween Movie 9. The Fog (1980)

Yes, I know it's an obvious choice, but have you watched it lately? It's tremendous fun and chock-full of goodies, from the deliberate slowness of the opening half hour or so to the gradual accumulation of strange and disturbing details as the ghost-infested fog draws in. Absurd though it may be in some respects, for me The Fog is one of the great ghost stories on film. Nautical spooks are fun, nemesis always provides a good plot motor, and the idea of supernatural forces wreaking wild vengeance on a community is now a time-honoured classic, thanks in part to Carpenter. While Halloween was vastly more successful, for me this is the quintessential story for the last days of October - it has the authentic chill of the sea about it.

Monday 22 October 2012

Halloween Movie 8. Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971)

Based on Bram Stoker's not-easily-read novel The Jewel of the Seven Stars, this is a Hammer film that, with the benefit of hindsight, represents almost the last hurrah for the traditional 'lots of old furniture and people shouting' school. I've always had a weakness for Egyptian spookery, and this one comes closet to capturing the (admittedly very silly) idea that the curse of the pharaohs might represent a truly existential  threat to modern civilization. The excellent cast includes James Villiers as a posh baddie of the old school, Andrew Keir of Quatermass fame, and the curvaceous Valerie Leon, who featured heavily in the publicity campaign for the film. This one deserves a respectful remake, I feel - modern effects could work well witthin the framework of a looming psychic onslaught. Also, today they'd make a much better job of the snake, the cat, the wandering severed hand... Anyway, there's a nice 'making of' feature here

Sunday 21 October 2012

Halloween Movie Interlude - 'The Lost Will of Dr. Rant'

It's a condensed (or, if you like, mercifully short) adaptation of an M.R. James classic - starring Leslie Nielsen! And don't call me Shirley!

Wednesday 17 October 2012

The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows

My review copy is here... If you click on the image it will magically embiggen itself so you can read the list of authors etc.

But by the time I actually review it, it will be sold out I suspect. So instead of waiting for my opinion (yes, I know you want to) why not mosey on over to Sarob Press and order a copy?

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Halloween Movies 6. & 7. Fleshy Waxy Screamy Double Bill!

Two classics from the early Thirties, next, with The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and Doctor X (1932). Both films star Lionel Atwill and Fray 'Eek!' Wray, and both were directed by Michael Curtiz. Both are bonkers but engaging, and I have to admit that I found myself warming to Mr Atwill and Miss Wray. What's more, the brilliant Curtiz makes both films look better, with pre-war technology, than 99 per cent of the stuff produced nowadays.

Curtiz's gifts are particularly evident in Doctor X, an absurdly-plotted story that feels a bit like a wildly improbable Sherlock Holmes mystery, but only if Conan Doyle had chronicled the great detective's dreams under the influence of powerful drugs. The film was produced before the notorious Hays Code severely restricted the range of violence, sex and general depravity that film-makers could include. This might explain why, for all its period charm, it has a distinctly grisly plot and some weirdly disturbing scenes.

In New York, a series of cannibalistic murders are committed. The killer employs a special type of scalpel that happens to be only used in a particular research institute. The scientists under suspicion are a fantastical hodgepodge of mad, maimed and boggled-eyed types, leaving the detectives and a fast-talking reporter baffled by Too Many Nutters As Suspects. We, the audience, already know that the killer is a weirdly-deformed creature in a hooded black robe who looks nothing like any of the suspects anyway. What on earth is going on?

Suffice to say that the gradual build-up to the revelation that the killer is... Well, I won't spoil it. Suffice to say that the decision by New York's finest to let Atwill's character sort out the problem by using scientific brain analysis does not quite prove the resounding success he'd hoped for. And if this all sounds rather comical, well, that's sort of the idea. Even this early on, Hollywood was mining the seam of parody, recognising that the tropes of the horror/mystery genre were ripe for calculated satire. Yet the climactic scenes involving the full-blown mad scientist's laboratory are as good as any 'straight' feature of the day.

Billed (see poster) as 'Better than Dr. X', our second feature certainly looks very different, not least because the early colour process (apparently it was the last feature film using a 'two-color' Technicolor system) gives it a beautiful 'hand-tinted' appearance. Again, Atwill is a genius with a problem, and Wray gets to scream a lot. (To be fair, Fay Wray's characters always had perfectly good reasons to panic and yell for help, what with giant gorillas and so forth.) In a nod to feminism Glenda Farrell plays the fast-talking reporter this time, and the whole thing chugs along nicely.

It doesn't take the astute viewer long to realise that Atwill's maimed sculptor, Ivan Igor, went more than a bit barmy when his London business was torched for the insurance by his dodgy partner. When he set up shop in New York things take a turn for the odd when yet another hideously disfigured weirdo in a cloak starts stealing bodies from the city morgue.

The actual mystery is not really hard to solve, but as with Doctor X the fun is in playing along with a film that recalls - as events career towards yet another OTT climax - Kenneth Williams' immortal 'Frying Tonight!' Again, it's barmy but stylish and fun, like a horror movie should be. Here's a rather realistic scuffle between two middle-aged blokes who have different opinions about insurance fraud, with some wonderful images of melting historical personages.

Monday 15 October 2012

Halloween Movie 5. The Haunted Palace (1963)

Roger Corman successfully emulated the Hammer horror model in America, adapting stories of Edgar Allan Poe for the big screen. Unfortunately the number of Poe stories that make halfway decent movies isn't that great, and Corman's production line approach got through them rather quickly. So he tried his hand at an adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The result is a film originally billed, with typical Hollywood accuracy, as 'Edgar Allan Poe's Haunted Palace'.

On one level, it's all ludicrous. In 1765 warlock Joseph Curwen is burned by the usual angry mob, but for some reason his castle (imported to New England from Europe, stone by stone - like London Bridge, I suppose) is left standing. Not only that, but his ghoulish retainer/disciple, played by Lon Chaney Jnr., is still looking after the place when Charles Dexter Ward and his new bride Anne arrive to take possession of the ancestral pile. Vincent Price plays Ward and Curwen, because of course the latter's spirit gradually takes possession of the former.

The film works, somehow, because it has an excellent cast, looks rather good, and somehow avoids the campery that can mar Price's performances (when it's not actually required, as in Theatre of Blood). Even Lovecraft's Mythos is worked in rather well, with Curwen and his disciples not merely conjuring up demons but seeking to produce a hybrid race for vaguely idealistic purposes. Unfortunately this includes offering attractive young ladies, such as the lovely Anne (Debra Paget), to a Thing in a Pit.

The film does sag a little in places, but it has enough energy and panache to remain watchable today, long after costume-drama approach to horror was consigned to oblivion. More or less.

Halloween Movie 4. Night of the Eagle (1962)

Based on the novel Conjure Wife by US author Fritz Leiber, this relatively low-budget British film is notable for strong central performances, some good dialogue, and a plot that holds us rather well. (One major theme is the idea of sexual exploitation of vulnerable young women by older men in positions of power.) The black and white starkness of many scenes gives NotE a 'classic' feel, and the setting - a British university - is well evoked.

Leiber's basic premise is very simple - magic is real, and women are often witches who use spells to advance their menfolk's careers. When psychology professor Norman Taylor (Peter Wyngarde) discovers that his wife Tansy (Janet Blair) has been putting magical protective items around their home, he sternly reminds her that - as a social scientist - he can have no truck with such superstition. But when he dispenses with the 'trash' his life takes a turn for the worse. Director Sidney Hayers handles Taylor's descent from modernity into a kind of medieval netherworld of terror with great aplomb, not least in this scene, where much is conveyed without a single word being spoken.

Saturday 13 October 2012

Halloween Movie 3. The Reptile (1966)

The Reptile is one of Hammer's odder ventures. By the mid-Sixties the studio, which had done so well from reviving Dracula, The Wolfman, Frankenstein, and the Mummy, mid-Sixties Hammer was struggling a bit. But they had to keep churning 'em out for their American distributors, so producer Anthony Hinds (under the name John Elder) bashed out this low-budget drama about colonial curses.

This is one of those films in which a sensible chap takes his new bride to a country cottage in a neighbourhood where people die horribly for no readily apparent reason  It's not difficult to figure out what's going on, but the nature of the horror is interesting. In a way it inverts the conventional vampire theme, with the monster of the title arguably as great a victim as any of the hapless folk found frothing in the foliage. There's a distinct touch of Conan Doyle about some plot developments, and an interesting subtext about Victorian attitudes to women as well as a more obvious comment about the dark side of colonialism coming back to bite Britannia on the bottom (or very nearly).

The cast is rather good, too. The statuesque knockout Jacqueline Pearce might seem miscast as the put-upn Victorian daughter, but she has real presence and imbues a tricky role with pathos. It's a pity she only did two Hammers (she was also in Plague of the Zombies, which was made back-to-back using the same location). The supporting cast is reassuringly solid - anything with Michael Ripper issuing dire warnings is fine by me, and John Laurie (Private Fraser from Dad's Army) does his level best to make everyone feel totally doomed. Arguably the absence of the two big-name Brit horror stars makes this a well-balanced film, as Hammer was sometimes inclined to use Cushing, in particular, on roles that didn't make much of his talents.

Anyway, let's all clutch our necks and collapse down a flight of stairs. It's either that, or smash the sitar.

Friday 12 October 2012

Halloween Movie 2. Night of the Demon (1957)

As this one has been praised to death by almost everyone, I won't bang on again  about how good it is. So here's something a bit different - a taste of the excellent score, that is often overlooked, adds immensely to the enjoyment.

Thursday 11 October 2012

Halloween Movie 1. Dead of Night (1945)

I know it's a bit obvious, but this British classic offering weird tales-within-a-tale seems the obvious place to begin my very personal (i.e. totally unreasonable) survey of things to watch in the run up to the Spookiest Time of the Year. It's great fun and it can be found in its entirety on YouTube. Opinions vary on the different stories, but one thing is obvious - DoN set the template for many later portmanteau horror films from Amicus.

The last story, the ventriloquist's dummy, is truly disturbing and leads into the finale with its nightmare twist. Michael Redgrave is brilliant and the sheer violence (bloodless thought it may be) of the denouement is still disturbing. I'm surprised they were allowed to get away with it back in the days of powdered eggs and Mrs Mopp.

WARNING: This clip is essentially one humongous spoiler, but I couldn't find a better (i.e. less humongously spoilerish) one.

Halloween Fun at a London Lido

I'm not in London, so I can't go to this. But it looks good.

To celebrate the launch of the third Kindle installment of scary stories from another London there will be a night of scary South London songs and stories 29th October Brockwell Park Lido Café 7.30 for an 8pm start. (9.30 finish)

Chris Roberts, London Dreamtime and others present: Full Moon Brockwell Lido.

Crafty rats, Lido mermaids, the dead boxer of Denmark Hill and other songs and stories from another London. There will be music, surprises and the chance to play a few hands of that popular cemetery focused card game Boneyard Brag.

Entry is free and dress code absorbent underwear.

See for details nearer time

Wednesday 10 October 2012

YouTube world...

If you haven't already noticed the Video Bar over to the right, it leads to the YouTube channel of me, David Longhorn, editor of Supernatural Tales. I wasn't sure if there was any actual point to uploading purely audio files to YT. My original intention was simply to put mp3 files on this blog, but it turned out to be a process more complex than organising a mission to Mars, or very nearly. Why Blogger makes audio stuff hard to promote I don't know, but there it is. You can upload movies easily, but not audio.

Anyway, the number of hits on my forty-odd videos (i.e. audios with still slideshows of still photos) is approaching the 2,000 mark, which isn't bad for a channel that started in April and caters to a relatively narrow niche. Of all the things I've posted so far, as of this morning, the most popular ones are as follows:

Monday 8 October 2012


Huw Langridge, whose story 'Last Train to Tassenmere' appeared in ST#15 some three millennia ago, has a new book out. Spireclaw is a novel about coincidences, a fascinating subject that's formed the basis of a lot of good weird fiction. Here's a bit o' blurb...
When Kieran Whyteleafe starts to see little coincidences happening around him he decides to investigate their meaning. The coincidences seem to centre around the word Spireclaw. Why does the word keep appearing in places only meant for Kieran's eyes? Is it connected to the suicide of his old school friend? And what is the significance of the archive boxes that turn up mysteriously at his work?
Questions, questions... The book is available to download free as a PDF, as an audiobook, or as a paperback, which seems pretty comprehensive.

Mucky Old Books

If you like filth, you'll love author Helen Grant's blog, where she's been exploring our ancestors' rather interesting attitudes towards witchcraft and related matters. Here latest post concerns the fairly famous Discovery (or Discoverie) of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot (or Scott). The guy's spelling was all over the place, but he knew a good story when he read one in some other bloke's book:
There was (saith he) a noble Gentlewoman at Lions, that being in bed with a lover of hers, suddenly in the night arose up, and lighted a candle: and when she had done, she took a box of ointment, wherewith she annointed her body; and after a few words spoken, she was carried away. Her bed-fellow seeing the order hereof, leapt out of his bed, took the candle in his hand, and sought for the Lady round about the chamber, and in every corner thereof; But though he could not find her, yet did he find her box of ointment; and being desirous to know the vertue thereof, besmeered himself therewith, even as he perceived her to have done before: And although he was not so superstitious, as to use any words to help him forward in his business, yet by the vertue of that ointment (saith Bodin) he was immediately conveyed to Lorrein, into the assembly of Witches. Which when he saw, he was abashed, and said; In the name of God, what make I here? And upon those words the whole assembly vanished away, and left him alone there stark naked; and so was he fain to return to Lions: But he had so good a conscience, for you may perceive by the first half of the history, he was a very honest man, that he accused his true lover for a Witch, and caused her to be burned: And as for his adultery, neither, M.Mal. nor Bodin do once so much as speak in the dispraise thereof.
Oh, those Frenchies, with their moral turpitude and magic ointment. When considerably younger I read a lot about witchcraft and demonology, and one thing that struck me was how lazily stories were recycled. People like Scot and Bodin were the tabloid hacks of their day, peddling gossip to titillate under the pretence of serving a greater good. The difference is that the likes of Piers Morgan or Jan Moir never actually got anyone burned at the stake.

Thursday 4 October 2012

For National Poetry Day

The Way Through the Woods
Rudyard Kipling

THEY shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.
Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.

'October Dreams' by Michael Kelly

A short sample from the latest issue. Music and effects by Tony Tooke, who can be found on Twitter and elsewhere.

Tuesday 2 October 2012

Nightfall - an essay by Adam Golaski

No, not here - here it is. Adam writes with great insight about the (to me) obscure Canadian radio drama series that produced some of the best weird fiction to be broadcast in my lifetime. While radio drama virtually died in the USA it survived with the 'BBC ethos' of CBC and as a result Nightfall (and other good series, such as Vanishing Point) had respectable runs.

Adam's essay begins with his own personal response (as a lad) to Nightfall's adaptation of Aickman's 'Ringing the Changes'. He concludes by pondering the series' demise - perhaps they simply ran out of stories, or maybe angry complaints about it being too scary played a part? Whatever the facts, Nightfall remains an anomaly - a Canadian show from the television era that recalls the post-war golden age of American radio drama.

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...