Thursday 30 August 2012

ST#22 cover - provisional

The back cover consists of Sam Dawson's full drawing, thus.

Estimated post-out, end of September.

Monday 27 August 2012

Well done, Lynda!

Lynda E. Rucker, whose story 'The Wife's Lament' will be appearing in ST next year, has been published in Fantasy & Science Fiction. Here she is holding (or should that be fervently clutching?) the latest issue:

Pretty darn good. F&SF was of course one of the old 'pulp' magazines, rapidly became a byword for quality, and has published just about every major author of science fiction, fantasy and horror post-1945. And that's exactly where Lynda belongs. Incidentally, her story 'The Last Reel' appeared in ST#10 (now sold out) but can also be found in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror Vol. 18, which can still be purchased here and there I think. As you can see, she was in prestigious company then as well.

Why mammoths are so interested in horror is beyond me, but each to his own. I'll get me coat...

Friday 24 August 2012

Thraxton Whelk and the Rather Tricky Moment

Being an unauthorised chapter in the frankly unconvincing and psycho-sexually dodgy memoirs of some fake Victorian bloke who bears absolutely no resemblance to Dr W-ts-n, no way, no how... 

It was on the third day of J--- in the month of ---ber in the year 189- that I found myself in ----olotl Avenue in the L-nd-n borough of ---ders Gr--n. I had decided to visit my old friend Thraxton Whelk, England's greatest occult detective. Or, more properly, to renew my acquaintance with the psychic sleuth; for we had not seen one another or communicated in any way - not even by whistling in code in different bits of a maze - since we parted after Whelk so nearly met a grisly end during the Extraordinary Affair of the Vampire Penguins.

I confess to feeling a little trepidation as I hauled the bell-pull out of the door frame, tried to replace it, then hid it among what may have been begonias. I call Whelk my friend, but he is notorious for his changeable moods. One minute he can be Hail-Fellow-Well-Met, the next he is chasing you trouserless through a Chinese laundry, wielding a bayonet and drooling rather disconcertingly.

It was for this reason I asked his housekeeper, Mrs Rummage, whether the great man was in good humour. She paused, as if in profound thought despite being so obviously a woman and of low birth, before replying:

 'I dunno, Doctor - he's been singing about a Dickie-Di-Do and knocking back the port something awful.'

This, I felt, was a moderately good sign. Leaving my hat, coat, stick, lamp, and lobster pots with Mrs Rummage, I made my way up the narrow, ill-lit staircase to Whelk's apartments. I waited for a moment before rapping smartly on his door and calling:

'I say old fellow! Can I come in?'

For a moment there was no reply. Then, with a crashing report and splintering of seasoned oak, a large calibre pistol bullet emerged from a door panel and embedded itself in the wall plaster a few inches to the right of my head. I let out a sigh of relief. He was in a good mood after all.

I entered and, leaving what remained of the door behind me, surveyed the psychic sleuth's domain. It was untidy, chaotic even, yet a discerning eye could spot a few obvious indicators of the kind of genius that resided in these dimly-lit chamber. For a start, there was the desk bearing the little sign reading 'Thraxton Whelk, Occult Detective and Personal Exorcist to Lord Salisbury's Valet', along with a list of charges. I noted with approval that he had bumped up his fee for casting demons out of larger spinsters.

'Well, park your arse if you're staying.'

The typically terse greeting came from a languid, aristocratic figure who lounged by the blazing fire, picking his toes with a harpoon. I recognised the implement at once, and as I seated myself in the understuffed armchair opposite Whelk I wondered, for the umpteenth time, what would prompt a Canadian whaling skipper to impersonate a Russian prima ballerina while neglecting to remove his oilskins.

'So, Whelk, I find you alone. No clients?'

He looked at me for a moment with an expression I had learned - after a few false starts and a serious concussion - to interpret as grudging respect tinged with a somewhat rough-edged kindness. He spoke:

'Well, I have for some minutes been expecting the arrival of a short, malodorous, retired army major with a bogus qualification in pharmacy and a strange fixation on the larger crustacea.'

Not for the first time, I was astonished by my friend's uncanny perspicacity.

'How do you do it Whelk? Scrying glass? Second sight? The Amulet of Amun-Ra? Or perhaps you obtained this intelligence by way of one of your small army of informers - Whelk's Urchins?'

He sighed in exasperation, then drove his bony fist against his high, noble forehead with considerable force before replying.

'I heard you coming up the stairs you stupid git! Give me strength...'

To Be Continued (if I can be bothered...)

Thursday 23 August 2012

Monty & the Spiders!

Author Helen Grant, whose story 'The Sea Change' appeared in ST in 2007, has an excellent article on M.R. James at her blog. Warning - not for arachnophobes. No way, no how.

If you aren't given the screaming abdabs by our leggy friends, a reminder that an excellent American dramatisation of 'The Ash-Tree' can be heard on my YouTube channel. Or indeed, right here below:

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Audio Excitement (Within Reason)

If you'd like to peruse the YouTube bar over on the right, you will notice... Me doing one of those air hostess demonstrations of the emergency exits. No, not really. But you will notice more antique radio drama, including:

'The Burning Court' - an ornate, ideas-driven thriller - original story by John Dickson Carr.

'Let Me See Your Face' - an adaptation of A.M. Burrage's ghost story 'One Who Saw'.

'The Dunwich Horror' - a Forties radio version starring Ronald Coleman, of all people.

And some other goodies.

Saturday 18 August 2012


So, four hundred years since the infamous Pendle Witch Trials. I read a book on witchcraft (a scholarly, historical volume, I should add) that described the whole sorry, shocking chapter as the Pendle Swindle. Reading of it now the obvious conclusion is that it was stage-managed like a modern 'reality' show. The difference is that the losers in this particular Big Brother House were not voted out, but executed.

The BBC has an interesting little piece about modern witches in Lancashire. Not surprisingly, modern witches tend to keep their activities and beliefs secret from colleagues, friends and family. I suppose ridicule is more likely than persecution nowadays, but you never know. Some Christian fundamentalists are crazy enough to try anything.

In supernatural fiction witches, dead or alive, are reasonably well represented, if you stretch the definition a lot. Karswell in 'Casting the Runes' is a black magician, but he could hardly be more removed from Mrs Mothersole in 'The Ash-Tree'. In both stories M.R. James rang his own changes on folk ideas about the scope of sorcery, giving both characters 'familiars' of a rather unique kind.

By contrast, in Blackwood's 'Ancient Sorceries', the feline witch-folk are straight out of a 16th century handbook for the credulous magistrate. His French witches use ointment to change into cats, and go to the woods to dance at the Sabbat. Another of the John Silence tales, 'Secret Worship', involves the appearance of a fallen angel that I've always found very compelling. But in both cases Blackwood doesn't show the Devil worshippers doing anything harmful. Indeed, the overwhelmingly sensuous and erotic nature of the innkeeper's daughter in 'Ancient Sorceries' suggests that Blackwood (like the original fabricators of Sabbat stories) found the whole thing a bit of a turn-on.

One of my all-time favourite witchcraft stories is by Sheila Hodgson. Called 'The Lodestone', it was first produced as a BBC play featuring M.R. James as a sort of John Silence figure, called in to solve an apparent case of reincarnation. The story centres on the mysterious appearance of a witch's gravestone, which returns to herald the destruction, by flooding, of a village where the witch-hunt took place. It has a very clever - and historically sound - twist.

Sheila Hodgson (who's best known for the TV series Stranger on the Shore, with its famous Acker Bilk theme) wrote a series of excellent ghost plays featuring James. She made him a slightly fusty, fussy character, which may not be entirely accurate, but the plays are wonderfully entertaining. The stories based on the plays are collected in The Fellow Travellers, an excellent read if you can get hold of it. The e-book is available here.

Thursday 16 August 2012

Dallas Goffin in ST (more or less)

This blog began in 2006, which means several issues of ST had been published with no bloggage (I'm a late adopter, I suppose). So it transpired that some excellent art by Dallas Goffin hasn't featured on this blog, though it was used extensively in early issues. So, to correct that, I thought I'd put some of that material in a post now.

I originally contacted Dallas to ask if he'd be interested in doing some cover art in exchange for free copies of the magazine. Instead he sent me a big folder full of material that he'd produced for projects that never got off the ground for various reasons, and said I could use anything I liked. A generous man, a good writer, and a fine artist. 
Unused (sadly) Egyptian horror illo

'Fancy a nibble?'
(Unofficial title)

Sort of Lovecraftian Sphinx(?)

'The Black Cat' - a personal favourite, cover  for ST#8

Selection of small drawings

'Bloody Heston Blumenthal, getting us all a bad name'

Tuesday 14 August 2012

When good things happen to good people

Tartarus Press are up for awards, and no mistake. I just got an email about it:
We are delighted to have been nominated for this years World Fantasy Awards. Raymond Russell and Rosalie Parker are shortlisted in the "Special Award: Non-Professional" category, as is Mark Valentine for Wormwood. Reggie Oliver's Mrs Midnight is shortlisted in the Best Collection category. We have blogged about the Awards here.

A country estate is something... a bit dodgy

Sometimes it pays to look up things you already know, especially on Wikipedia. For instance, in the entry on Lovecraft's novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward we read that
A possible literary model is Walter de la Mare's novel The Return (1910), which Lovecraft read in mid-1926. He describes it in his essay "Supernatural Horror in Literature" as a tale in which "we see the soul of a dead man reach out of its grave of two centuries and fasten itself on the flesh of the living".[3]
The theme of a descendant who closely resembles a distant ancestor may come from Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables, which Lovecraft called "New England's greatest contribution to weird literature" in "Supernatural Horror in Literature".[4]
Another proposed literary source is M. R. James' short story "Count Magnus", also praised in "Supernatural Horror in Literature", which suggests the resurrection of a sinister 17th century figure.[5]
Now this is rather odd. I agree that the de la Mare and Hawthorne links make sense, but the M.R. James is way off beam. For those who don't know about the issue at hand, here come the spoilers...

Saturday 11 August 2012

Tales That Witness Madness (1973)

British portmanteau horror starring Donald Pleasance, Jack Hawkins, Michael Jayston, Joan Collins... It's a roll-call of British talent that was evidently desperate for work in 1973, really. Passes the time nicely.

Wednesday 8 August 2012

Synchronised Suspiria

The Russians won the Olympic synchronised swimming gold on Tuesday with a routine based on Dario Argento's cult horror film Suspiria. And here is a video of an earlier version they performed in London before the games:

Saturday 4 August 2012

The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows

Oo-er. This is a rather nice tribute to old Monty, I think. Check out the facts at Sarob Press' blog.

Sporty Spooks?

The fact that M.R. James 175th anniversary coincides with the London Olympics led me to ponder whether supernatural fiction and sport go together. James wrote 'After Dark in the Playing Fields', of course, but the crucial point is that no sports are being played (well, not by people, anyway). There are of course horror movies that feature sport heavily - if Attack of the Zombie Cheerleaders hasn't been made yet, it's only a matter of time*. But can the ghost story 'work' in the context of sport, which is generally a public event in daylight?

Well, there's golf. Many consider H.R. Wakefield's 'The Seventeenth Hole at Duncaster' to be the best golfing ghost story (though strictly speaking the menace is more of a demon). I think Margery Lawrence at least equals Wakefield with 'The Fifteenth Green'. But, excellent though they are, I think golf is a bit marginal as sports go. In my humble opinion, golf is pointless unless you have to tackle a windmill at some point.

There's motor racing. L.T.C. Rolt offers a very good (and historically fascinating) story base on the early days of this petrolhead sport in 'New Corner'. It's an object lesson in how to update the Jamesian ghost story, but of course it's pre-war origin now gives it a period feel. I'm not sure if motor racing, as such, features in any other notable ghost stories, though of course haunted cars of various types are ten a penny.

Discerning readers will note that neither golf nor motor racing are Olympic sports (as yet). There are, I think, a few cricketing ghost stories, because one has appeared in ST. But overall sport might be the most 'spook hostile' environment in which a work of fiction might be set. I can imagine a ghost in a submarine, up a mountain, in the cellar, or in the back seat of a car. But on an athletics track in front of tens of thousands of spectators? Probably not.

* I was more prescient than I suspected.

Friday 3 August 2012

M.R. James Birthday Tributes

Over at the fine This is Horror blog, you can read about the influence M.R.James has had on a lot of contemporary writers.

There's also an interview with Robert Lloyd Parry about his wonderfully authentic MRJ readings roadshow, aka Nunkie Theatre. Here's a little eztract:

I enjoy them all in their different ways. I don’t think I could have spent so long doing the shows if I didn’t love the material.  Most terrifying? At different times they’ve all elicited the right kind of reaction – which is a mixture of amusement and fear. Perhaps the most satisfying was when a friend of mine came along to a show out of politeness, and expecting I think to be rather bored, seemed genuinely disturbed by ‘Lost Hearts’ when I met him in the pub afterwards.

Meanwhile, in Cambodia

There is of course much academic speculation about ghost stories, and the broader, related genre of horror fiction. Much of this talks - quite reasonably - about complex sociological factors that lead people to enjoy being scared, disturbed or otherwise made to feel uncomfortable.

Conventional wisdom has it that people are entertained by fictional violence, in its various forms, when the real thing is remote. Crime writer Denise Mina said as much recently:

"People are interested in crime fiction when they're quite distanced from crime," she said. "People in Darfur are not reading murder mysteries. 
"I think people are afraid of crime if they're quite safe. People rehearse being afraid. It is about distance and experiencing those primeval emotional responses in a safe environment."

Distance is the key word. Crime fiction is relatively 'close' if it concerns someone being murdered,  because we know this could happen to us or someone we care about, though it is very improbable. At one further remove is horror fiction of the non-supernatural kind, with its crazy backwoods serial killers or  'slasher' movie anti-heroes terrorising small town America. At one further remove still is supernatural horror, with the ghost story arguably representing the most refined (or diluted) way to experience not crime as such, but menace. Of course, reaching the conclusion that I prefer the most 'genteel' version of sublimated violence might indicate a certain bias on my part...

Anyway, by this logic, a society that has experienced terrible collective trauma should return to 'normality' (and I'll just sidestep the whole issue of what constitutes normal, here) by stages that can be traced in its popular fiction. Supernatural horror, and ghost stories in particular, should be more popular than conventional crime thrillers. And this does indeed seem to be the case in Cambodia, which has been producing horror movies - mostly supernatural I think (not all Khmer titles are translated in this list).

I've only seen one Khmer horror movie to date, and I thought it was well-crafted. It is not supernatural, but it's two English titles - The Vanished; Mind-Haunter - are suitably ambiguous. And judging by all the trailers out there, the ghost story is now thriving in Cambodia, as it seems to be across much of eastern Asia. I choose to see this as promising. Just as the rise of the Gothic novel signalled the rise of a more orderly and prosperous Victorian society, following the upheavals of the first four Georges, so the Asian horror movie suggests the emergence of confident, urban societies from post-colonial turmoil.

Also, I have to admit I'd like to see a horror movie called Annoyed.

Thursday 2 August 2012

According to that nice Mr Wiki

Oddly enough, it only just occurred to me to look up 'Ghost' on Wikipedia. And here's what it says:

In traditional belief and fiction, a ghost is the soul or spirit of a deceased person or animal that can appear, in visible form or other manifestation, to the living. Descriptions of the apparition of ghosts vary widely from an invisible presence to translucent or barely visible wispy shapes, to realistic, life-like visions. The deliberate attempt to contact the spirit of a deceased person is known as necromancy, or in spiritism as a séance.
The belief in manifestations of the spirits of the dead is widespread, dating back to animism or ancestor worship in pre-literate cultures. Certain religious practices—funeral rites, exorcisms, and some practices of spiritualism and ritual magic—are specifically designed to appease the spirits of the dead. Ghosts are generally described as solitary essences that haunt particular locations, objects, or people they were associated with in life, though stories of phantom armies, ghost trainsphantom ships, and even ghost animals have also been recounted.

That's not bad. But it does underline how few of the 'ghost stories' of M.R. James deal with ghosts in the traditional sense. Indeed, a far higher ghostly strike rate was turned in by James' successors - notably Wakefield, Benson, and Burrage, who I think of as the 'inter-war boys'.

Wednesday 1 August 2012

Happy birthday, Monty!

150 years ago Montague Rhodes James was born. Thanks to him, I'm writing this and you're reading it. Without MRJ there would still be supernatural fiction, but he had a profound influence on the field. He shunned the overdone, unconvincing occultism of Victorian/Edwardian authors. He pioneered a 'detective story' format that set a good template for ghost story authors (and of course for horror authors, via H.P. Lovecraft). He also adopted a chatty, informal style and injected humour into stories that are often extremely horrific in their implications. And of course MRJ's very success has generated critical reactions and spurred creative attempts to 'get round' his approach to the ghost story.

And, above all, he brought a lot of pleasure to a lot of people. So...

'The Ash-Tree'

In case you haven't looked over at the YouTube bar lately, this is one of the recent additions. You can also find a dramatisation of Henry James' 'The Jolly Corner', plus some sci-fi by way of a change.

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...