Wednesday 27 June 2012

The Pulp Magazines Project

Want to see some old issues of Weird Tales? How about lesser know pulps, like Ghost Stories or Sea Stories? Well, a bunch of clever people have digitised them and put them online, as apparently under US law a lot of these old pulps are now in the public domain. Link to Weird Tales here.

Weird Tales August-September 1936Summer 1950December 1950August 1929January 1927June 5 1915

Des Lewis reviews Peter Bell

Renowned short story author and critical blogger (or blogger critic) Des Lewis has shared his views on Peter Bell's latest book. It's always interesting to hear a writer's take on another writer, especially when there's no back scratching involved, just an honest appreciation of the work in hand.

This is Des's take on 'Bewitched':

A story that takes me back to what I sense to be the early Fifties, where boys could be called “cissies” by big girls and health-&-safety hadn’t been invented: frissons of the past war, a cobbler’s shop on the corner, and the acceptable insanity that the war had doled out, and the ”superstitious awe”, and the mis-alignment of souls by literal ‘bewitchment’.  

Which is almost how I read, though as a child of the late Sixties/early Seventies my experience of post-War Britain was more attenuated. Anyway, a good review.

Stolen from Facebook

I haven't read or seen any of the Twilight saga, but I have reason to believe they are not masterpieces of modern popular fiction.

Sunday 24 June 2012

'My burning feet of fire!'

H.P. Lovecraft has been well-served by film makers, at least with regard to quantity; M.R. James, much less so (though I persist in thinking of the Japanese film Ring as Jamesian in essence). However, James and Lovecraft have both done rather well compared to Algernon Blackwood, a one-time bestselling author and popular broadcaster who is now almost forgotten. But one person who remembers is the writer/director Larry Fessenden. In the film The Last Winter Fessenden essentially updates 'The Wendigo' for the era of climate change.

The film is set in Alasa, at an oil prospecting camp within a conservation area. There's a lot of tension between the oil people and the ecologists who have to assess the damage that permitting extraction might cause. But an already fraught situation is made worse because one of the oil company team is acting very strangely, and the scientists are recording absurdly high temperatures even for an Arctic summer. And for Blackwood fans there's a blink-and-you-miss-it reference to his classic story - an email service called Defago Express.

The arrival of a hard-assed oilman, played by Ron Perlman, triggers confrontation among the human contingent. But is there something inhuman out there, waiting to deal with the interlopers? Yes, but fortunately it's not a monster in the conventional sense. Indeed, the only times the film seemed weak to me was when some kind of CGI 'thing' appeared. It was probably necessary for the distributors or other money people, but it somewhat undermined the air of mystery and awe.

What the trailer doesn't show is the second overt homage to Blackwood, this time at the moment things really come unstuck for our characters. Without giving too much away, the film tries do rather a lot on a limited budget. But it is well served by a good cast, solid script, some imaginative direction, and a soundtrack that is just weird and vague enough to make you believe that Something Is Coming. Not a flawless film, but one that does capture, for much of its length, that Blackwoodian sense of Nature as a being that can casually swat us if it notices us at all.

Friday 22 June 2012

Dark Gods

Dark GodsDark Gods by T.E.D. Klein
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a remarkable book, offering four long stories showcasing the talents of an author who is not as well known as he deserves. The linking theme is, I think, the idea of a hidden world existing in parallel with our own - each hidden world may be different, but all are dangerously near. This is of course a rather Lovecraftian notion, but instead of piling on the horror Klein instead offers us good-natured, rather urbane and witty characters who only gradually realise that something has gone awry with the world.

Spoilerish bits follow...

Walpole's Weird Wonder

The Castle of OtrantoThe Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the most ludicrous Penguin Classics, this book reads as if the Monty Python boys had teamed up with Sir Walter Scott and they'd taken a whole bunch o' drugs together. If you're expecting this progenitor of the Gothic novel to have spooky atmosphere, credible shocks and believable characters, stop right there. It's an eighteenth century novel, and that means it's pre-Romantic. The novel was not considered a serious literary form at the time (or at least, not by most people) - real literature was non-fiction for sensible chaps, followed by poetry, followed by drama, with the novel lagging in last place as a fit diversion for silly young ladies. Walpole didn't really help the situation by writing a very silly book, but it's so bizarre that - if you try to visualise what's going on - you can almost appreciate why it was such a huge success. Which is why I've given it three stars. It's like one of those terrible horror films you remember when many a better-crafted work has been forgotten.

View all my reviews

Thursday 21 June 2012

Demon Weather

A long, long time ago a tiny magazine called Supernatural Tales survived long enough to bring out a second issue. And in this second issue was a story called 'Cats and Architecture', which was indeed about cats and architecture, but also about a Portuguese sea captain called Luis da Silva. It just so happened that the story (promptly snapped up for a 'Year's Best' anthology) was the first that the author, Chico Kidd, had been able to finish after a long period of writer's block. Somehow the 'discovery' of the captain and his world of demons, sorcerers and general spectral mayhem allowed Chico to beat the block, and she's been writing about that world ever since.

If you're a da Silva fan, or just want to find out what it's all about, Volume 1. of the tales, entitled DEMON WEATHER, is now available on as a paperback or download. It's good value - if you like well-written fiction in the historical/supernatural thriller vein, this is for you.

Wednesday 20 June 2012


This Japanese video contains some of the most authentic, and disturbing, evidence of paranormal phenomena ever committed to the internet. Watch at your own risk.

Monday 18 June 2012

The Lovecraft Paradox

When I want to nod off at night I often listen to talking books of one sort or another. I have a cheap mp3 player on which I've loaded - along with examples of my embarrassing, middle-aged-bloke taste in music - a number of spooky or sci-fi stories.

Among the latter are the audio productions of Dark Adventure Radio Theatre, one of the alter-egos of the excellent HPLHS. The four Thirties-style 'radio' dramatisations are The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, At the Mountains of Madness, and The Shadow Out of Time. They are all very well done - faithful adaptations of Lovecraft stories. But in listening to them as I wait for the Sandperson to come I can't help noticing how very wonky the central premise of Lovecraftian horror is.

To recap: Lovecraft tried to move beyond the old 'ghosts, vampires and werewolves' brand of supernatural fiction and strove to create a new genre of 'cosmic horror'. This is predicated on the assumption that the modern, scientific view of our world is essentially correct: The universe of billions of years older than the earth, which is itself billions of years older than us; human beings are the product of blind evolutionary processes in a godless cosmos; and our Earth - far from being at the centre of things - is just one minor mote in an unimaginably vast ocean of space.

Fair enough. So why do the Great Old Ones keep trying to conquer it? Why - faced (assuming they have faces) with a universe replete with planets of all shapes and sizes - do ancient, powerful and, one assumes, quite well-informed beings bother with our little world? It's not as if the Earth is even a convenient bit of real estate. As is made clear in The Dunwich Horror, the Earth will have to be 'cleared off', denuded of life as we know it, before it can be properly colonised by Those From Outside. So why bother with Earth at all, when Mars, Venus or some of the larger moons of Jupiter are (probably) lifeless and therefore more desirable residences?

Lovecraft is oddly geocentric. Far from being cosmic in outlook, his monstrous super-beings are fixated on our little planet. They spend an inordinate amount of time palling around with frankly inept (not to mention deranged) occultists, desperate to try any means available to get back to our earthly sphere.  In The Shadow Out of Time we are offered a long list of dominant species during Earth's various eras. A surprising number are immigrants, like the things revived in At the Mountains of MadnessIt's almost as if the third rock from the sun were composed of some kind of cosmic catnip.

To be fair, Lovecraft was trying to write horror fiction that engages the reader, so there wouldn't be much point in simply saying: 'Well, the Great Old Ones arrived on the distant planet Tharg, and go up to some amazingly naughty things - let me tell you about it.' C.S. Lewis had a point when he said that to describe how odd things struck odd people is to have one oddity too many. No, as an admirer of Machen, Blackwood and M.R. James, Lovecraft wanted to make the cosmic as personal as possible. And the only way he could do that was to yoke together two incompatible Big Ideas - that our Earth is just one insignificant world among millions, but at the same time that the most powerful beings in this or any other cosmos can't wait to get their hot little tentacles on it.

None of which spoils Lovecraftian fiction for me. Far from it, I find it immensely reassuring, like a cosy armchair I can sink into. But some stories do retain a certain frisson of strangeness, such as 'Nyarlathotep'. So, in tribute to HPL, here's my reading of that story.

Strange Epiphanies

Writers are often obsessives, repeatedly returning to the same emotional terrain to try and map it more thoroughly. This, I think, is the case with Peter Bell, whose stories constantly address the pain of loss or loneliness, and often do so by taking a character out of their familiar context. Thus in the first story collected here, 'Resurrection' an expert in psychiatric medicine who finds herself laid low by depression goes for a short holiday in the Lake District. She finds what seems at first an idyllic valley, but there's a distinct 'Wicker Man' vibe about the place: strange scarecrows, talk of the Beltane Fires, and an odd aside about the number of healthy children born lately. Sure enough, our protagonist is headed for a confrontation with the sort of festival that could never comply with health and safety law. But there is a twist, which is more a matter of emotional perspective than plot.

A similar scenario is played out in 'M.E.F.' but with important variations. Here a widower journeys to Iona, arguably the holiest of the British Isles. He once stayed there with his wife, but it is another woman who comes to influence him. Or rather, it is here absence, for in this story Bell takes a true account of the disappearance of an eccentric aesthete and around it weaves another tale - that of a lonely person seeking some truth that, by connecting them with life in some way, might help them transcend their isolation.

'The Light of the World' explicitly refers to Machen. Again we have a lonely person, beheaved and beset around by depression, seeking some kind of escape. A recurring dream and the strange connection between a Roman temple in Cumberland and the site of an Italian miracle provide the basic armature for an enchanting, disturbing and extremely satisfying tale. Read it aloud (a good policy with Bell's stories) and you get a feel for the powerful rhythm of the language. The central premise - that ultimate truth is unbearable because it is transcendent - is not new, but is seldom tackled by today's horror writers. This is a Machenesque story that Machen would not have disowned. As with all Peter Bell's stories there is a sense of nightmarish inevitability about the way an innocent character is the focus of... what? Possibly God.

Somewhat more traditional is 'An American Writer's Cottage'. This time our solitary, unhappy protagonist retreats to a bleak Hebridean island. Margaret is 'fleeing a particularly dire set of professional and personal circumstances'. Anyone who does this in a Peter Bell story has had it, really. It's just a question of finding out how their particular Nemesis will destroy them. Strange encounters with seals and less easily defined creatures give Margaret little cause of unease at first. The story is a good example of the 'not quite haunted house' genre, where spirits of place count for more than the mechanics of a conventional apparition.

'Inheritance' also has its roots in a venerable sub-genre, that of the Scary Doll. We've read about them and seen them in horror films aplenty, but it remains the case that little simulacra of human beings designed as mere toys have a capacity to unsettle us (well, me) more than vampires or zombies. The doll in this case provides a link to a hidden past of violence and madness. It's a comparatively slight tale, but stands out because it offers a slightly more positive take on life than the others collected here.

Somewhat jauntier in tone (if not in content) is 'A Midsummer Ramble in the Carpathians'. Here the time-honoured device of the discovered journal reveals a hitherto unexpected episode in life of the celebrated Victorian traveller and author, Amelia Edwards. What could be more natural than that our hero should try to retrace Edwards' steps? I'm not giving anything away by saying that, as vampire stories go, this is a very good one, and the element of historical pastiche works well. There are overtones of Dracula and Carmilla, not least in the full-blooded finale.

The last story, and arguably the best, first appeared in Supernatural Tales but has been extensively revised. 'Nostalgia, Death and Melancholy' is the archetypal Peter Bell story. A lonely, sensitive and erudite man goes to an unnamed island (but it's the Isle of Man) to attend to the funeral and bequest of his aunt. Sinclair recalls childhood holidays on the island and decides to revisit a much-loved part of the coast. Along the way he conducts some research into Victorian architecture - what could be more harmless? But a link emerges between his own origins, a neglected house, and a symbolist painter who became possessed with visions of chaos, madness and death. All the 'Bellesque' (Bellian?) ingredients come together perfectly in a story that qualifies as a modern classic.

This is one of the best short story collections of recent years, and bears comparison with the classics. In some respects it harks back to what I call (in my pretentious way) the Silver Age of the ghost story. by which I mean the period between the world wars. But Bell's stories - while offering touches of humour, not to mention humanity - have none of the cosyness that often prevails in the works of Benson or Burrage. Here there is rarely any hope for those who stray any great distance from life's well-trodden ways.

Sunday 17 June 2012

Ghost Stories from Japan

There are dozens of these very short ghost stories out there. Some are pretty good, most fairly so-so. But it's  noteworthy that Japan - unlike the UK - has no problem mass-producing TV ghost stories. Here it's a major project for the BBC to do precisely one. This has perhaps as much to do with the decline of the one-off drama as a TV art form as to a perceived lack of demand.

Saturday 16 June 2012

Portmanteau Thai Horror Movie

Remember the portmanteau horror movies of the old days? Asylum, Tales from the Crypt, Dr Terror's House of Horror all spring to mind. I think that what killed off the sub-genre was the rise of 'slasher' movies like Nightmare on Elm Street, which offered young audiences the same kind of thrill - a series of nasty incidents with some kind of linking narrative. The obvious downside of the slasher flick, though, is that if the central premise is weak, or the machete-wielding maniac is unconvincing, the whole thing is pretty flimsy. Whereas a series of stand-alone, if linked, stories can offer more variety.

Anyway, 4Bia (Phobia, geddit?) is a recent Thai attempt at this concept. The four loosely-linked stories, each helmed by a different director, pretty much run the gamut of horror film orthodoxy. Here, of course, are haunted lovers, vengeful spirits, and young idiots running about in the woods. But all four tales are handled with sufficient panache and energy to prove diverting, at least to me. The changes of mood and pace are often tricky to handle in this kind of film, but 4Bia gets it right.

The first story 'Happiness' is arguably the most predictable - pretty girl stuck at home in a high rise with a broken leg gets mysterious text message. She unwisely responds, and wackiness ensues. But it's a sprightly and effective opener, thanks to a very good solo performance by Maneerat Kham-uan. It's an object lesson in what can be achieved with solid direction.

The second segment, 'Tit for Tat', is altogether darker and quite gory. It concerns those old favourites, high school bullying and resulting supernatural vengeance. Again, the director and young cast show great gusto in getting enough material for a ninety minute film into about twenty minutes.

It's followed by the very different 'In the Middle', taking us from straight horror to a knowing parody of the genre. Four friends go on a camping trip, and of course there's much discussion of ghosts (Why are they always women with long hair?). They discuss twist endings - inevitably, some doofus hasn't seen The Sixth Sense. When the twist ending of this segment comes, it's duly satisfying.

Finally there's 'The Last Flight', which has a distinct period feel. An airline stewardess has unwisely had an affair with a prince (remember, this is Thailand), which makes a certain princess deeply unhappy. When the princess dies her body is flown back on a specially-chartered plane, and the stewardess must accompany it. The 'scary thing on a plane' theme has been done a few times, but this is a decent addition to the canon.

All in all, 4Bia is an enjoyable and refreshing attempt to revive portmanteau horror and give it a shot in the arm. It's a good example of the way the Thai film industry has brought some much-needed humour and charm to the somewhat tired and formulaic Asian horror market.

Friday 15 June 2012

'In the Rigging' by Jane Jakeman

My reading of a story that is set to appear in ST next year - not quite sure which issue. Anyway, I hope you enjoy this sneak preview (or free sample) blog readers.

Find Jane Jakeman's many and varied books on Amazon here.


Japanese Tales of Mystery & ImaginationJapanese Tales of Mystery & Imagination by Edogawa Ranpo
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

View all my reviews

Thursday 14 June 2012

'Lamia' by Peter Bell

Humourless, snobbish American academic Paul Ferrers is Visiting Professor of Gothic Literature at King's College Cambridge, and a great admirer of M.R. James. His scholarship is somewhat contentious, though. For instance, he holds that the creature released in 'An Episode of Cathedral History' is an actual vampire, which ruffles some academic feathers.

One day Ferrers sets off to scout around some interesting locations (Aldeburgh, Dunwich) and ends his East Anglian odyssey with a special event - a performance by Dr Rant. Anyone who's enjoyed a performance by Robert Lloyd Parry will know the score, here. Instead of a reading of a story Dr Rant, 'in character' as the late Provost of King's, tells it to an audience in a darkened room in a spooky country house. There difference between the Dr Rant and the real RLP is that nobody seems to know much about the good doctor. His background is mysterious, he never gives interviews - indeed, nobody seems to know where he lives. Rather odd for an actor, one might think.

But these considerations are pushed to the back of Ferrers' mind when he realises that, by happy coincidence, the country house where the performance is to be held has a remarkable library, one that has long been closed to anyone except the eccentric old lady who owns The Grange. When an opportunity to spend the night in the supposedly haunted house presents itself, Ferrers naturally accepts...

And there my very brief review must end, except to say that as a first story in a collection 'Lamia', previously unpublished, delivers the goods. Indeed, it is almost an object lesson in how to write a modern Jamesian 'tribute' without producing a rather soggy pastiche. The scholarship is there, the plot structure is sound, and the characterisation is economical and effective rather than sketchy and clich├ęd. The gradual accumulation of telling detail is well-handled, and the actual menace is very effective when it is finally revealed.

I may blog a few more stories as I go through the book.

Wednesday 13 June 2012

A Certain Slant of Light

This new collection by Peter Bell begins with a previously unpublished tale entitled 'Lamia'. The first sentence runs:
Paul Ferrers had been in post at King's College, Cambridge, for over a year before he made any effort to explore the eastern counties in search of associations with M.R. James.
I think I'll wait till tonight and read it in bed.

Tuesday 12 June 2012

'The Edge of the Map' by Iain Rowan

Everybody got this okay? If this is the only way I can get 'em out there, it's what I'll do. It takes a while - a longer story will take ages to load, but I suppose I can leave the laptop to do the job overnight.

Monday 11 June 2012

'The Edge of the Map' by Iain Rowan

This is me reading the shortest story from the current issue of Supernatural Tales. It's about eight minutes long Let me know what you think of this reading with regards to clarity, pace, expression, pronunciation etc. And do you think it would benefit from music and/or special effects, or are you a purist who prefers a plain reading? No right answers, just diverse opinions!

Saturday 9 June 2012

Codex L'ng

The indefatigable Cardinal Cox has struck again, this time with a pamphlet of poems for Unicon, to be held in August at Cambridge.

Here's the shoggoth-tastic cover of Codex L'ng. (Slightly dodgy scan, sorry.)

And here are two sample poems, both rather intriguing. Note the extensive annotations that are very much the hallmark of the Cardinal.

This pamphlet 'takes its inspiration from the references to 'inaccessible Leng' in the tales of H.P. Lovecraft as well as the Tibetan legends of the land of gLing'. Oh, and it's written in verse-forms used by the sixth Dalai Lama in the 17th century.

As usual, to order a pamphlet all you have to do is email the cardinal:

Friday 8 June 2012

Ghosts in daylight

Thailand has been churning out dozens of horror movies lately, almost all of them ghost stories of some sort. What makes them interesting (to me, at any rate) is that they are the product a Buddhist culture that's lately 'collided' with Western values, most notably individualism and the consumer capitalism that springs from it. So you've got a culture with reincarnation and karma woven into its DNA coming to terms with the Hollywood horror genre as well as all the good stuff from Japan (secular Shintoist culture) and Korea (Catholic Christian, mostly). Not sure quite where this is leading because I'm not an expert on anything I've referenced - damn! Suffice to say that Thai ghost/horror movies are worth a try, if you don't mind subtitles and the inevitable fact that these are films aimed at a young audience - the characters are almost always young and pretty. Of course, that could be a recommendation.

Anyway, here are two Thai movies I've seen recently:

Kubla Khan

Coleridge was the Romantic poet who 'did' the supernatural, while Wordsworth got stuck in the mud. From this, much follows.

Thursday 7 June 2012

ST author signs big posh book deal!

Well, sort of. Helen Grant's story 'The Sea Change' appeared in ST#11, has moved to Random House from Penguin/Puffin. She is rapidly establishing herself as the leading writer of teen thrillers.

Random House Children's Books has acquired three novels by Helen Grant in a five-figure deal. The author was previously published by Puffin. 
Fiction publisher Annie Eaton bought UK and Commonwealth rights in the titles through Camilla Wray at Darley Anderson. The Forbidden Spaces trilogy is set in Flanders, and follows 17-year-old Veerle De Keyser as she tries to discover the truth behind something she has witnessed almost a decade before: the bloodstained figure of a local man carrying a dead child in his arms. 
The first book, Silent Saturday, will be published under the Bodley Head imprint in 2013. Eaton said it "promises to be one of the most exciting literary thrillers of 2013".

New Mic Test

Right, I've got a new, inexpensive but decent microphone, and I'm testing it out. You can ignore this if you like, I just need to hear what I sound like after much tinkering and swearing. (NB there is no swearing in this video.)

Wednesday 6 June 2012

Supernatural Tales 22 - who and/or what's in it?

Yes, I'm engaged in the perennial struggle with things like paragraphs, punctuation and, you know, words 'n' stuff. The contents of the magazine (barring sudden, terrifying changes) will be as follows:

'The Longest Night of the Year' - Andrew Alford

'The Badger Boy' - S.M. Cashmore

'Hands' - Charles Wilkinson

'The Blighted Rose' - Derek John

'Midnight Blonde' - Ian Rogers

'Visitor Attraction' - Sam Dawson

'The Rustling of Tiny Paws' - Carole Tyrrell

'Only the Dead Know Deptford' - Michael Chislett

While I know people hate spoilers, I thought I'd dangle a few titbits in the form of facts.  So here goes:

Irish authors - 1
British authors - 5
Canadian authors - 1
US authors - 1
Haunted Houses - 3
Young women in foggy graveyards - 1
Hard-boiled private eyes - 1
Gypsy flower sellers - 1
Badgers - 1
Vampires (non-sparkly variety) - 2
References to the song 'American Pie' - 1
References to the cartoon character Porky Pig - 1

I think that's a fair sampling of the various treats in store.

And here's the cover art, courtesy of Sam Dawson.

Tuesday 5 June 2012

Every House is Haunted

A spooky thought, and a spooky title for a first collection by up-and-coming Canadian author Ian Rogers. Find out more here.

The publisher says:
In this brilliant debut collection, Ian Rogers explores the border-places between our world and the dark reaches of the supernatural. The landscape of death becomes the new frontier for scientific exploration. A honeymoon cabin with an unspeakable appetite finally meets its match. A suburban home is transformed into the hunting ground for a new breed of spider. A nightmarish jazz club at the crossroads of reality plays host to those who can break a deal with the devil...for a price. With remarkable deftness, Rogers draws together the disturbing and the diverting in twenty-two showcase stories that will guide you through terrain at once familiar and startlingly fresh.
Release Date: October 15, 2012
Ian Roger's story 'Cabin D' appeared in ST#17. In ST#22 you will be able to read his story 'Midnight Blonde', you lucky people.

Every House Is Haunted cover

Sunday 3 June 2012

'The Listeners'

Another recording done very quickly and uploaded as a video, so again not brilliant quality. But this is a favourite of millions - it came second in a BBC poll to find the nation's favourite poem, which isn't bad going for an overtly supernatural piece of fiction. (I think Wordsworth's daffodils won.) Anyway, hope you enjoy it.

Saturday 2 June 2012


I am delighted to reveal that the story 'Translation' by Adam Golaski (ST#21) has been recommended for a Bram Stoker Award. The award is presented by the Horror Writers Association. The reading list is here.

Whatever you think of awards, it's good to see ST up there with the likes of Cemetery Dance and Black Static.  More importantly, Adam is getting the recognition he deserves as a seriously original author.

A subscriber in Japan!

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...