Monday 30 December 2013

A Very Monty Christmas

Well, Mark Gatiss certainly pulled off the big one, to steal a phrase from the realms of football commentary. Not only did he manage to get his dramatisation of an M.R. James story on the box on Christmas Day, but also presented an excellent documentary on Monty to follow it up.

The Tractate Middoth was extremely well-handled and very entertaining. As Gatiss' directorial debut, it bodes extremely well. I admit it's not one of my top ten Monty stories. But Gatiss chose cleverly, I think, by selecting a story that's just right for the 35 minute slot allocated. A bit more complex, a few more characters, and the result would have been a slightly garbled effort, whereas one of the slighter tales - such as 'An Evening's Entertainment' - might have wilted under the glare of the camera. As it is, though, the antics of naughty Dr Rant proved to be just the thing.

From the start the drama pays tribute to the great Lawrence Gordon Clarke adaptations of the Seventies. 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' pops up on the screen, a woman in old-fashioned attire cycles across English countryside to a fine old house, and the first few lines of dialogue take us straight into the plot. The fact that the bicycling lady in question is Louise Jameson (Leela from old-school Doctor Who) just adds to the air of TV nostalgia. Dr Rant (David Ryall) is suitably unpleasant. 'Come closer, Mary!', he says to poor Mrs Simpson (no, not that one), and you know her instinct is to leave the room and never come back.

Wednesday 25 December 2013

In Dulce Jubilo

I was going to sing this myself, but felt that the dress clashed with my beard.

Merry Christmas! And a Cool Yule.

Tuesday 24 December 2013

The Phantom Coach

Think I've posted this before, but it's worth seeing again - and Christmas is a time for repeats! Anyway, this is a spiffing adaptation of a ghost story by Amelia B. Edwards.

Stigma (1977 BBC Christmas Ghost Story)

A ropey YouTube upload from what is obviously not a commercial videotape. This one is an original story rather than an adaptation, so I thought you might find it interesting. I think that - as modern efforts go - it's rather well done. Nice to see Peter Bowles, a very good actor best known for To the Manor Born, getting into a serious role.

Thursday 19 December 2013

Yuletide Old Movie Spot - The Evil Mind (aka The Clairvoyant)

The holidays were a time for old films when I was a lad. Nowadays it's all fancy blockbusters and the like, but I prefer obscure stuff in black and white when I'm a bit drunk and full of pudding. 

Anyway, here's a little gem I stumbled across earlier this week. It's Claude 'Weather Report' Rains and screen beauty Fay Wray in a British (maybe a 'quota quickie'?) film that neatly tackles the perennial question - What if someone really could see the future? Does this mean they can help avert disaster, or do their prophecies actually shape events? And was three hundred pounds a week really an unthinkably vast wage back then? (Yes, it was.)

It's fascinating to see two big-name stars in a relatively cheap and cheerful horror movie (albeit one without actual monsters). But it's good stuff, from the opening when the 'Great Maximus' finds his act going wrong due to simple human error to the big trial scene at the end. Some nice visual effects, too. Just don't listen to the accents too closely...

Saturday 14 December 2013

The Heaven Tree & Other Stories

It's been a good year for collections and anthologies. The rude health of the supernatural tale is a bit surprising, but heartening. Here we are at the end of 2013 and I'm surrounded by excellent new stuff. The Heaven Tree is a case in point. New from Sarob Press, it's the first collection of stories by an author who has been writing for many years. Why it took so long for Christopher Harman's work to get between hard covers, I don't know. Writing has always been a chancy business, I suppose.

The book consists of five long-ish stories, all offering Harman's dense, impressionistic prose. Some authors sketch in pencil, but Harman lays on thick layers of pigment in dark, surprising colours. His work is slightly reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell in this regard. But his prose also reminds me of Mervyn Peake's fantasies - it is artistic and poetic, shaping language beautifully rather than merely using it for an obvious purpose.

It is a somewhat cinematic approach, but we are never given a God-like perspective; Harman only allows us to see through the eyes of one character at a time. Here is a typical passage:
His headlights gave him the rising approach to Connerstone in instalments; a cattle-grid, box-hedges, the spire of the Catholic church, sudden devil masks of sheep in the shelter of unravelling dry-stone walls, the shock of bright yellow daffodils on a verge,  gnarled cottage doors, the pebble-dashed surgery and community hall, slate new-builds, then the garage, the bridge and the roofing of alder and oak over the stream.
Connerstone (not to be confused with real-life Coniston, I'm sure) is the setting for 'The Heaven Tree', which is - on one level - a familiar tale of a secretive community and an unwary outsider. But the Lovecraftian weirdness of the central premise and the quality of the writing lift it above routine horror. Indeed, this is the sort of thing Lovecraft aspired to and admired in Blackwood, among others - weird fiction without the paraphernalia of black magic, ghosts and so forth. The bizarre entity of the title (excellently captured by Paul Lowe's cover art - see below ) is unearthly in its awe-inspiring strangeness.

'Hoxlip and After', the second story, is similar to the first in its premise, though very different in execution. Here a senior citizens' coach trip to the Cotswolds offers a shot at romance for a lonely man, who doesn't pay enough attention to a bit of local folklore. As with 'The Heaven Tree', this is an ambitious story that would have fallen to bits in less able hands, but Harman's skill creates an absorbing tale with enough outré ingredients and interesting characters for a novella. This one manages to combine the Lovecraftian with the Aickmanesque, a task I'd have thought well nigh impossible.

'Bad Teeth' is a slightly more frivolous tale, though I should note that a sly humour is evident throughout the collection. It concerns an elderly woman who takes part in a local library reminiscence group, and the wartime experience that returns to haunt her when a local building is demolished. It's a nicely-judged study in old age, and the way that childhood fears can return to haunt us. It's also got an ending that takes an already disturbing image from an M.R. James classic and makes it considerably more unnerving.

'Scrubs', by contrast, deals with young people and offers multiple perspectives on the self-involved lives of several students at a university in a fictitious 'grim up north' industrial town. What's assumed to be a Rag Week stunt involving a tent turns out to be something altogether more outlandish. Here again Harman takes a familiar notion - dabbling in the occult leads to unwary youngsters being bumped off one by one - and runs with it in an interesting direction.

The final story, 'Deep Water', is set in East Anglia, and one might expect an outright tribute to M.R. James. Instead - though Monty gets a nod or two - it invokes strange aquatic entities that are partly revealed through the unfinished work of a missing children's author. Set in and around Aldeburgh, the story is a superb evocation of the Norfolk coast and landscape as well as a satisfying depiction of a descent into something worse than madness. An especially nice (i.e. nasty) touch involves mysterious patterns created on the beach.

Here, then, are five substantial stories by a writer who deserves to be better known. Christopher Harman's first story was published in 1992. All credit to Sarob for being the first to collect some of his fiction. I only hope we won't have to wait over twenty years for a second book!

Meanwhile, you could do worse than invest in a copy of ST#25, if you have not already done so. It's packed with rather excellent stories, among them Harman's 'Dark Tracks'. You can buy a reasonably-priced print copy here, or a nice cheap PDF here.

Tuesday 10 December 2013

Byzantium (2012) & Dean Spanley (2008)

In a recent post I praised the way the Anglo-Irish film The Daisy Chain offers a straight take on the idea of fairy changelings, because the central idea - no matter quaint it may seem - is inherently horrific. Well, it so happens that I watched another couple of films the in weeks following that also take old-school supernatural notions seriously - albeit in very different ways.

First up, Byzantium. This is director Neil Jordan's third venture in shadowy realms. I wasn't too impressed with Interview With the Vampire, and can't remember if I've seen High Spirits. Third time seems to be the charm, though, as Byzantium is a remarkable film, combining an authentic Gothic feel with an absorbing contemporary thriller, and finding time to tackle a bit of ill-starred romance.

Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan star as (apparently) sisters Clare and Eleanor. The opening sequence leaves us in no doubt that they are not ordinary young women, and that some form of 'authority' is on their trail. Fleeing a grotty council estate they arrive in a run-down British seaside resort, where Clara (adopting the street name Camilla, perhaps as a nod to Le Fanu) immediately sets out to make money by prostitution. However, her first punter turns out to be a lonely man whose mother has just died, leaving him the hotel of the title.

The Byzantium is a bit of old shabby-genteel splendour, and Clara persuades Noel to let her set up business there i.e. run a brothel. She recruits her girls by the simple expedient of killing the local pimp. Meanwhile, gentle Eleanor seeks out volunteers who are ready to die. Unequipped with fangs, these vampires kill by opening a blood vessel with a sharp nail. But, thanks to a series of flashbacks and Eleanor's obsessive writings, it is clear that they are supernatural entities. Things get very complicated when Eleanor begins to fall for Frank, a fragile young man who - thanks to cancer treatment - has anticoagulants in his veins...

Without giving too much away, Byzantium is an intriguing take on vampire lore, and (like The Daisy Chain) offers an Irish Gothic twist to the basic question - where do the undead originate? The Regency-era backstory is an interesting corrective to all those nice Jane Austen serialisations, stressing as it does the brutality and misogyny of the times. For much of the film I was rooting for Clara, amoral and dangerous though she is, simply because the men ranged against her - vampires or otherwise - were such a lot of shits.

At one point we catch the Byzantium girls watching an old Hammer film, perhaps to underline the point that this story is not going to develop conventionally. And it doesn't. There is no Twilight stuff about vampires as superior beings, either. There is a lot of violence, with historical thuggery counterpointing modern clashes in lap-dancing clubs and fairgrounds. But there is still a hint of optimism, of the possibility of good, amid what is the bloodshed and mayhem.

Vampires are a horror take on the Christian notions of resurrection and immortality through the magical properties of blood. In some Eastern faiths reincarnation takes the place of eternal life, raising some interesting questions. Dean Spanley is one of the few Western films I know of that takes reincarnation seriously, albeit within the context of a quirky period drama. The film is also a rare example of an adaptation of a work by Lord Dunsany. As I stumbled across on the BBC I had no idea what it was about. As the story unfolded I was drawn in, feeling rather delighted that such a story got to the screen at all.

The setting is Edwardian London. Peter O'Toole plays Horatio Fisk, a troublesome old man who does not get on well with his son Henslowe (Jeremy Northan). Son visits father every Thursday, and they fail to talk about the death of Henslowe's brother in the Boer War, or the subsequent death of his grief-stricken mother. O'Toole's 'rude old buffer' routine stays just on the right side of farcical, and a sharp script generates some very amusing moments. But this is a story about loss and the suffering it brings.

Enter Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), an apparently dull clergyman who the Fisks run into by chance at a talk given by the Swami Nala Prash, played by Art Malik. The Dean seems oddly concerned with the question of whether pets as well as people are reincarnated. Later, Fisk Jnr. encounters the Dean again, in odd circumstances, and tries to befriend him. He recruits a colonial wheeler-dealer, played by Bryan Brown, to procure the Imperial Tokay the Dean loves. The rare wine seems to induce an odd state of reverie, in which Dean Spanley recalls a very different existence...

It's all wildly improbable, but the Edwardian setting and some excellent performances make this film very entertaining and something more than light entertainment. The climax, when Dean Spanley helps old Horatio come to terms with his grief (as a clergyman should, of course), manages to be comical, fantastical, and yet wholly convincing.

Monday 9 December 2013

Seventeen Stories

'There are those who make it a principle not to like anything that is popular, out of a mistrust of mass taste. Those who have never caught on are their preserve. They look with disdain on all the rest.'

This passage (from 'Without Instruments') sums up, to some extent, the outlook of Mark Valentine. His tales seldom deal with the obvious, the commonplace, the clichéd. Instead his characters seek out the rare, the baffling, the downright impossible - often learning something to their great disadvantage in the process. Instead of the monsters and menaces of conventional horror fiction, they encounter stranger and perhaps more credible terrors. There is also a fair leavening of humour. Indeed, lack of humour in a Valentine character is a warning sign that something less than delightful could soon befall them.

All but one of Seventeen Stories have been published before, and indeed I've mentioned some in earlier reviews. But a lot of the tales gathered here are not easy to find. 'The Seer of Trieste', a fascinating exploration of the byways of literary history, was published as a chapbook. 'Yogh', with its very unusual haunting (I've only come across one other story like it, and that was by Harry Harrison, of all people) appeared in Ro Pardoe's Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter.

The stories are marshalled into five categories. Thus the Three Singular Detectives section begins with a trip to Baker Street for 'The Adventure of the Green Skull', and an extremely enjoyable adventure it proves. Conan Doyle had a social conscience and this mystery - while grotesque - would have appealed to him. Two slighter tales, 'Prince Zaleski's Secret' and 'The Return of Kala Persad' offer excellent ideas, and some wry comment on the treatment of 'exotic' characters such as fiendish Orientals and Indian mystics in Edwardian fiction.

The arrangement by category rather than, say, date shows how versatile a writer Mark Valentine is, and how tricky it is sometimes to pin down the genre he's working in. Can this be horror? Well, several stories first appeared in horror anthologies. They all differ in tone and style, but none offers actually horror in the conventionally understood sense. To (mis)quote Monty Python, you get no blood spurting up the walls and flesh flying out of the windows inconveniencing passers-by.

'The Fall of the King of Babylon', an East Anglian tale, comes close to mainstream horror with its account of a stranger infiltrating a marshy nest of villains near Ely. There's a distinct whiff of historical adventure as well as shapeshifting weirdness, though. 'You Walk the Pages' is very different, and its narrator - a vindictive misfit who may have special powers - is certainly familiar. But again, the horror is almost subverted by the character's obsession with ancient wonders, so that the conclusion is almost uplifting.

Then in the story quoted above, 'Without Instruments', we encounter another fairly familiar horror trope - the piece of music that's never before been performed. One excellent example is Ramsey Campbell's 'Never To Be Heard'. The expectation, of course, is that playing the 'lost' composition will conjure up something or someone. However, Valentine's twist on this is so unusual that once more we seem to be ushered through strange, Machenesque portals to a new kind of understanding.

Indeed, of all the stories here the most horrific is one that offers precisely no violence and no real hint of the supernatural. 'The Other Salt' is a gentle, restrained account of a French scholar in search of a rare condiment, whose source has been lost. Nothing could seem more trivial. Yet the story's conclusion seems - to me, at least - to comment on the atrocities that have stained the pages of European history. It is a profoundly moral story that shuns any obvious moralising. Such tales are too rare.

Is Valentine a fantasist? Yes, but in a much broader sense than is often meant today. Fantasy has been so drastically re-defined down the years thanks to the sword 'n' sorcery crowd that the term has become too tight a fit for our most imaginative authors, though there are signs that things are changing. Thus 'Morpheus House' offers a day in the life of a functionary whose job is to catalogue accounts of dreams. But, after a series of strange maybe-coincidences, the tale ends in a burst of exuberance that's at once realistic and somewhat Chestertonian.

'The 1909 Prosperine Prize' is also informed with a sense of fun that hints at deeper seriousness. A group of worthies meet every year to select a book that 'most skilfully went into the dark and emerged with something of the light'. Cue references to Stoker, Shiel, Blackwood, Hodgson, and quite a few authors who were new to me. No spoilers here, but the twist is an immensely enjoyable one and makes me with someone would try the same thing on the Booker jury.

The love of books, and the perils that can beset the bibliophile, are recurring themes. 'The Late Post' sees a fussy bibliophile encounter a hybrid menace spawned by two classic tales. 'The Tontine of Thirteen' nods to Stevenson in the title, and has a wonderful opening scene at a graveyard on the fells of Westmoreland, but actually focuses on the vanity of an obscure author. Perhaps the only conclusion that can be drawn is that Valentine is a writer in love with the great tradition of the weird tale. Anyone who shares this passion is unlikely to be disappointed by Seventeen Stories.

Many of Valentine's characters are collectors of beautiful books, so I wonder if any of them are chasing limited editions of his work? The Swan River Press has certainly produced a collector's item, complete with splendid dustjacket and beautiful boards.

Saturday 7 December 2013

Obsessive authors!

Omnium Gatherum press is publishing a collection of stories, including several from writers whose tales have graced the pages of ST. Little Visible Delight is a collection of eleven tales of obsession, and among those revealing their deepest, darkest yearnings are Lynda E. Rucker, S.P. Miskowski, James Everington, and Steve Duffy. Anyway, here be the blurb.
Often the most powerful and moving stories are generated by writers who return time and again to a particular idea, theme, or image. Obsession in a writer's imagination can lead to accomplishment or to self-destruction. Consider Poe and his pale, dead bride; his fascination with confinement and mortality; his illness and premature death. Or Flannery O'Connor's far less soul-crushing fondness for peacocks. Some writers pay a high price for their obsessions, while others maintain a crucial distance. Whichever the case, obsessions can produce compelling fiction.

Little Visible Delight is an anthology of original stories in which eleven authors of dark fiction explore some their most intimate, writerly obsessions.
Expect a review when I've read the stories. Yes, the old school approach.


Friday 6 December 2013

Building a Spooky Library - Robert Westall

Robert Atkinson Westall (1929-1993) was one of the most prolific ghost story authors of all time. He is probably the best-known British ghost story writer of the 20th century - I'd wager more people have heard of him than M.R. James. Yet his status within the genre has always been problematic, because he was a children's author. For some this consigns his work to second class status - they seem to think that only books for adults deal with 'serious' themes and ideas. For me this is a short-sighted and wrong-headed viewpoint.

In writing for children, who are notoriously exacting critics, Westall had to focus on plot, character, and ideas, and do a competent job - no loose ends, no rambling digressions, and no self-indulgent 'fine writing'. Technically, Westall only wrote one collection of ghost stories for adults - the excellent Antique Dust. But in fact most of his work is entertaining for readers of all ages, and much of what he wrote for young readers is surprisingly mature. It is also full of humour and warmth, while at the same time informed with a very keen awareness of how stupid and cruel people of all ages can be.

If I had to recommend a handful of Westall's books for your shelf, I would go for the following. Antique DustBreak of Dark, The Promise, The Watch House, and The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral. It's worth noting that Westall wrote many short stories and some were collected in more than one volume. Sadly, it's also true that - according to the author's website - a lot of his books are now out of print. However, almost every one of them is a mass-market paperback, so at least second-hand copies won't be too hard to find.

The Watch House, his second novel, is a ghost story set in Tynemouth (Westall's home turf, which he renames Garmouth), and follows fairly traditional principles - something very bad happened in the past, a restless spirit is trying to contact the living to set things right. What makes the book remarkable - apart from the realistic, intelligent characterisation - is the degree of thought Westall puts into the mechanism of his haunting. His ghosts always have not only a good reason for their antics, but in this case a variation on the traditional theme of 'unfinished business' is cleverly devised. No spoilers here!

The Promise is a vampire story, also set in Garmouth. During World War 2 Bob, a working class boy, falls in love with Valerie, a consumptive girl from a middle class home. The social division between them gives a slight Romeo and Juliet feel to the romance. But things rapidly take a Gothic turn as Valerie's condition worsens. She exacts the promise of the title from Bob - if she is lost, he will come and find her. Then she dies. Pale, red-haired, and filled with a desperate, selfish need, Valerie draws Bob to her. If the book has one flaw, it's a finale that has more than a touch of the deus ex machina.

Break of Dark offers some enjoyable examples of what used to be called 'science fantasy', and one superb tale of the supernatural. 'Blackham's Wimpey' is told from the viewpoint of a young RAF airman serving with Bomber Command during the controversial area bombing campaign against Nazi Germany. The descriptions of night bombing operations are compelling in themselves, but the addition of a haunting - and the way it is tackled - make this a first-rate ghost story. It's full of the understated artistic touches that make Westall's best work such a joy, especially the contrast between the cloud base over Germany when the triggering incident occurs and the mist-covered ocean that the crewmen fly over at the end. As with so many of his stories, Westall here stressed compassion and the need for moral responsibility, even to one's bitter enemies - perhaps especially to them. The volume also includes a very creditable vampire story,

Antique Dust, as I've said, contain stories for adults, but in fact there's little to distinguish them in content or quality from Westall's other short fiction. The linking character in most of the stories is an antique dealer who encounters odd items and strange people in the course of business. Westall, a teacher by profession, also dealt in antiques, and the circumstantial details are absorbing. What is arguably the best tale of a very good bunch, 'The Last Day of Miss Dorinda Molyneaux', is pure M.R. James in setting and theme - unruly schoolkids explore an old church and disturb someone/thing nasty. Old Monty would not have approved of the romantic sub-plot, though.

The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral consists of a novella and a short story, collected in a single volume. It won the Dracula Society's Children of the Night Award, and it's easy to see why. The companion piece is nothing special (by Westall standards) but the title story is strong stuff, even for a 'young adult' audience. A steeplejack working on the restoration of a cathedral becomes fascinated by a gargoyle. A series of disturbing events reveals that this particular house of God was constructed by distinctly unholy means - and the dark forces summoned in mediaeval times are still very active. It is a genuine horror story, made all the more effective by being told in the prosaic, decent voice of an ordinary working man.

So, there are a few examples of good books by Robert Westall. Sadly, the death of a prolific writer usually leads to a fairly sharp drop in awareness of his work. In my late teens the second-hand bookshops I frequented had shelfloads of Dennis Wheatley paperbacks - he was only recently deceased. A few years later, you could seldom find one dog-eared copy of The Devil Rides Out. Some enthusiasts have recently begun publishing new editions of Wheatley's book, but it's taken a generation since his death for his work to be 'rediscovered'. Westall, a vastly better writer, does not deserve to be half-forgotten when all those second-hand paperbacks have finally fallen apart. I hope some enterprising publisher will publish a decent hardback of his best short fiction, at the very least.

Oh, I almost forgot - he liked cats.

'The Tractate Middoth' - BBC Christmas Ghost Story

It's been announced that Mark Gatiss' adaptation of M.R. James' classic ghost story will be screened on BBC 2 on Christmas Day. The one-off play will run from 9.30 to 10.05, a running time that seems about right to me. The cast includes Sacha Dhawan, John Castle, Louise Jameson, and Una Stubbs.

Judging from the photo on the BBC site, it's a period piece - or is it fashionable for young chaps to wear braces that hoist  their trousers to the navel? I'm so out of touch. But I'm guessing it will be set roughly 'between the wars', which doesn't really count as an updating.

Sacha Dhawan (Credit: BBC/Can Do Productions)

*Update! I am reliably informed by Ro Pardoe that it's set in the Fifties. (Well, I was close-ish. Similar trousers.) And location filming took place at Stonyhurst College, a Catholic boarding school in Lancashire. You can see some behind the scenes shots here.


Tuesday 3 December 2013

Messing With Old Stuff

One of the biggest No-No's in the history of supernatural fiction is stealing very old books. So the police can at least eliminate ghost story enthusiasts from their enquiries concerning the theft of - wait for it - a 16th century Bible.

It was stolen from a Welsh church. No doubt it is worth a lot of money. But if roughly 15,000 stories, plus approximately 250 feature films and TV dramas are anything to go by, the thieves are in serious trouble. Even now, the eerie sense of their being someone just outside the old field of vision, a figure that can never be more than glimpsed, might be wreaking havoc on their nerves.

Oh, and there's this: 'As well as leaving no fingerprints the thieves also went to the trouble of putting a copy of the Good News Bible in place of the one they had taken.' That's what is known as adding insult to injury. I dread to think what will happen to Fingers McNulty, The Prof, Dutch Steve, and the rest of the gang. Nothing nice, I'll wager.

Thursday 28 November 2013

The Daisy Chain

This 2008 horror movie is unusual on several counts. Firstly, it takes fairies seriously, possibly for the first time since J.M. Barrie. Secondly, it's set on the west coast of Ireland - an excellent location for many reasons, but well off the usual horror film path. Thirdly, it's a co-production between several worthy agencies, made with the support of the BBC and its Irish counterpart, RTE. Fourthly, both writer and director are female. Given these facts, you would expect something a little different from the average gore flick, and you'd be right.

The premise is simple. A young Anglo-Irish couple return to the husband's home village because life in London has become unbearable following the death of their daughter two years' earlier. Samantha Morton's character, Martha, is now heavily pregnant again. She and Tomas (Steven Mackintosh) move into a house outside the village, near the cliffs, and discover they have some rather odd neighbours. There's Sean Cryan (the excellent David Bradley), a cantankerous Auld Fella who lives in a tumbledown shack. Then there are the Gahans, a young couple with two children. Their oldest, Daisy, seems troubled, perhaps autistic, but from the start she forms a bond with Martha.

The film is well-crafted in terms of the script and visuals, and the on-screen talent is impressive. It's also somewhat surprising in its approach to the supernatural. I assumed that, at first, we'd be left in some doubt as to Cryan's insistence that Daisy is a changeling with dangerous powers. Instead the viewer is left in no doubt at all that she is not a normal human being, if she's human at all. An early scene in which she kills a troublesome social worker is quite emphatic about this. And that's not the first corpse by any means - there is quite a high death toll for a film that clearly sought to avoid any hint of schlockiness.

Given that we know what Daisy is, one might expect a certain loss of tension. But instead the effect is rather like that of the famous Twilight Zone episode based on Jerome Bixby's 'It's a Good Life!' - you find yourself anticipating, with eager dread, what evil trick the girl will do next. The twist, of course, is that at first only a few 'superstitious' locals believe that the little girl who likes wearing toy fairy wings is the real deal. Martha sees nothing but a troubled child and is determined to adopt Daisy when the other Gahans all die in odd circumstances. When, we ask ourselves, will she realise what's really going on? Suffice to say that the revelation comes far too late for Martha and Tomas.

I suspect some will see this film as an interesting failure - not quite a proper 'BBC drama', but not disturbing enough for the horror brigade. For me it worked rather well, stressing the the casual violence of which very ordinary children are capable, the often dangerous fantasies that adults project onto youngsters, and above all the capacity we have to ignore the obvious when it doesn't fit our world-view. Samantha Morton is excellent in the demanding central role, and as Daisy young Mhairi Anderson is very convincing, offering a solid example of 'less is more' acting. And you know what? Fairies are creepy, and no amount of Disney rehabilitation can hide that.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

RIP Joel Lane

I was shocked and saddened this evening to read that Joel Lane died in his sleep last night. I never met him, but we did correspond by email on the occasions when he submitted stories to ST. The stories were excellent, but he was quite modest about them. I never had the courage to ask him why he'd submitted his work to an amateur editor who couldn't even afford to pay him. 

It's hard to believe Joel Lane's no longer around. His continuing presence as a major British talent was for many of us simply a given - a writer of real insight and impressive intellect. He was classed as a horror writer, but his short stories can bear comparison with those of any contemporary writer regardless of genre.

A tribute from Mark Valentine can be read here. I'm sure there will be many more in the days to come.

From some of my Facebook friends, I culled the following comments:
Joel Lane was one of the most phenomenal and underappreciated writers of his generation, one of the weird fiction genre's most insightful commentators, a poet of brilliance and distinction and one of the most principled, honest people I've ever known.

Joel was a fine fellow, a great writer, and an insightful critic. He will be sorely missed...
I'm utterly devastated. Stunned and devastated. Joel Lane was a formidable talent, and I'm going to miss him terribly. 
Joel Lane ... a good friend, a kind and generous soul, and an effortlessly superb writer, who in all the darkness and chaos of the literary world we inhabited together, never once forgot those basic messages of human love, empathy and understanding.

Saturday 23 November 2013

The Incredible Robert Baldick? Really?

This is a failed pilot that aired on the BBC in 1972. It stars Robert Hardy as Sir Robert Baldick - a name taken from a real person, who happened to die in 1972. So, it's a name culled from an obituary by writer Terry Nation.

So far as I know this is the only attempt at supernatural fiction by Nation, who is of course best known for creating the Daleks and thus boosting Doctor Who from obscure kids' show to global telly phenomenon. Given this, I don't think it's entirely a coincidence that Sir Robert likes to be addressed as 'Doctor' while he's solving weird mysteries with the aid of his loyal companions. It's also notable that he travels around in an unusual conveyance (in this case a private train, not a space-time machine).

A few things to look out for: the girl who's been 'killed' in the opening bit is clearly breathing; there are enough stick-on whiskers here to make a convincing Bigfoot video; and I think there's a neat bit of writing from old Terry, when the bluff squire realises he's been talking to mere servants as if they were actual people! Ah, those wacky Victorians.

Friday 22 November 2013

Get it Down, and Other Weird Stories

Image of Get It Down & Other Weird Stories *signed*
Martin Hayes featured in ST#17 with '13 Nassau Street', a sort of ghost-story-with-a-twist. It seems slightly out of place here, as most of the tales on offer in this collection are outright horror and tend to have a sci-fi vibe.

The shadow of Lovecraft falls across some of the most interesting stories. Luckily, Hayes isn't one of those who assumes that references to the Necronomicon and so forth make a Mythos tale work. Instead he takes Lovecraft's basic premise - ancient, terrible beings lurk out there, or down there, or somewhere - and runs with it in some interesting directions. 

Thus in 'Me Am Petri' a meteorite brings an alien entity into the ideal location - a scientist's laboratory. Unfortunately for our would-be invader, certain aspects of modern human society prove far more monstrous than it is. More serious and altogether darker is 'Beneath the Cold Black Sea', detailing a confrontation with the Deep Ones in an American coastal town. There's a final revelation that would have appealed to old Howard.

Old Ones, Great Ones, or maybe just plain Ones also feature in 'Peeling Back the Skin Will Reveal the Sagittal Suture'. If you can't guess that this is not for the squeamish, you are probably reading the wrong blog. It's a clever variation on the idea used by, among others, Stephen King in 'I Am the Doorway', but is a bit nastier, though not as nasty as 'Get It Down'. Here urban planning blight is revealed as a way to invoke strange, anarchic powers that might well lead to a kind of grubby transcendence.

A quest for higher truth - that old favourite - features in several tales. The lyrical 'Concerning Tavia' reminded me slightly of Frederick Pohl's 'The Words of Guru'. In both cases a lonely child is entranced by a strange being who offers him special powers. The difference is that Hayes links an apocalyptic theme with the painful, desperate need of the unhappy misfit to be loved. The world doesn't end in 'Every Thing That Lives is Holy', but it's grim depiction of the fate of a would-be visionary is arguably more appalling than large-scale destruction.

Cynicism about our human condition - and how inhuman we can be - pervades most of the tales here, and I suspect some may find that off-putting. I can take it in short bursts, especially when the writing is this good. The first sentence of the first story in this collection is, aptly enough: 'It was the first big story of my career'. The last sentence of the last story is: 'The police found traces of blood on the keyboard, and five dead owls in the kitchen cupboard.' In between those two interesting statements, a lot of stuff happens, most of it unconnected with owls. But they do suggest the overall tone of the collection.

There's a bit of humour, as in 'Spamface', which offers a fun variation on that dodgy old 'imagine if you could become the god of a primitive tribe' idea. Another story warns school leavers to beware of recruting drives by the Space Corps, which is sensible as it's a very badly-managed outfit if 'Gibson' - the cautionary tale of an angry spacefarer - is anything to go by.

This is, I think, a pretty impressive collection of stories, most of which pack a lot into very few words. Strong stuff, interesting stuff, and above all promising stuff from a writer with the ability to surprise.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

The Moon Will Look Strange


Lynda E. Rucker's debut collection from Karoshi Books includes eleven stories that all fall within the broad category of weird fiction. They are also united by a common sensibility - a feel for loss, and loneliness, that at times makes the the lives of Rucker's protagonists almost unbearable.

Most stories about solitary folk having strange experiences fall into one of three categories. There are fictions in which a lonely individual never makes a connection with another human being - or at least, not a healthy, natural one. Then there are Jamesian tales in which scholarly bachelors seem quite happy in their solitude, until something happens to seriously discommode them. Finally, and most familiarly in the modern American horror story, there is the situation most of Rucker's characters find themselves in - that of suffering loss and being unable to face it squarely, or deal with it in other ways.

Thus in the impressive title story Colin, scarred by the accidental death of his small daughter, finds himself in Granada. In a mainstream story he might slip into a sub-Henry Miller existence as a drunken grifter. But it emerges that Colin sought occult help to try and bring his daughter back to life. The sheer craziness of this attempt, involving a very unpleasant necromancer, is well realised. Suffice to say that the ending wasn't at all what I was expecting.

Equally powerful is 'No More A-Roving', which Steve Rasnic Tem identifies in his introduction as pivotal to the collection. Here we have another unhappy American abroad. Paul, searching for a lost girlfriend who may be somewhere in Ireland, finds himself at a chilly hostel. His failure to connect with his fellow travellers and the mysterious presence of a small boat out at sea are nicely Aickmanesque touches. Eventually Paul finds himself unable to do anything but follow a route that, we are led to believe, other lost souls have taken.

Rucker is exceptionally good at evoking a spirit of place in a few deft lines, quickly establishing her characters as outsiders. In 'The Chance Walker', a young American teaching English in the Czech Republic starts to crack up - or is she the target of ghostly, historical forces? If the past is a foreign country, what strangeness might one not encounter in a foreign country's past?

Not that America is much fun, either. Back home in the USA Rucker's characters fall victim to ghosts and to far less conventional things. In 'Different Angels' a young woman returns to her childhood home in rural Georgia, all sweaty hypocrisy and bible-thumping craziness. Again, the final paragraphs surprised me, not least due to their poetic yet restrained prose.

'Beneath the Drops', by contrast, is set in the rainy Pacific North-West, and is again recalls Aickman, and perhaps Charles L. Grant. The incessant rain permeates the lives of the narrator, Gary, and his girlfriend Gwen. He hates it, she seems drawn to its sound. They grow apart, and Gwen's paintings take on qualities that highlight what might be their elemental difference. (Or I may be reading it all wrong.) The ending is enigmatic yet, as in the best strange tales, also seems inevitable.

Few writers in the genre can resist entering at least one haunted house. 'The Last Reel', which first appeared in ST#10, is an excellent example of the 'unwary couple' theme, in which the characters' love of old movies contrasts with the subtle and insidious danger they encounter. In 'The Burned House' a woman encounters what seem to be conventional child-ghosts, only to discover too late that she has strayed into a place of danger. Here, again, the setting is beautifully evoked and the whole story is told with consummate economy.

For me, these are the most memorable stories in the collection. There are no duds here, but the other stories don't quite have the same impact. You may disagree, of course. One of the virtues of these tales is that, while there may not be something for everyone, there is certainly more than enough to give any thoughtful reader pause to consider loss, strangeness, and fear.

Monday 11 November 2013

The Torygraph on fantasy and such

The writer Anne Billson has a good piece in the Telegraph about the recent World Fantasy Convention. It's familiar stuff, by and large, as we already knew genre fiction is not a load of old tat. But I daresay it's a revelation to some that there is a long tradition of good writing sheltering under the fantasy brolly. And I'm sure we'll be hearing a lot more about one particular author next year.
This year's convention coincided with the 150th anniversary of the birth of Arthur Machen, the Welsh fantasy author of The Great God Pan, which Stephen King has called "one of the best horror stories ever written". Perhaps nowadays Machen is best known as the writer of The Bowmen, a short story in which ghostly archers from the Battle of Agincourt help defeat a company of Germans in the First World War. 
The author never intended it as anything other than fiction, but it somehow became accepted in many quarters as an account of actual events, and ended up contributing to the legend of the Angel of Mons, one of the many subjects of this year's panel discussions.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Pulp Art - Joseph Eberle

I think I've seen a fair bit of Eberle's work in my time, as I've thumbed through plenty of old magazines (I had an uncle with a vast collection of pulp stuff). I think these illustrations owe something to Virgil Finlay, but I could be wrong. Maybe the influence went the other way? Leah Bodine Drake at least has a Wikipedia entry. Best known as an editor, poet, and critic, she only wrote two stories for Weird Tales (in 1953/4), but they clearly merited pretty good artwork.

Saturday 9 November 2013

Pulp Art - The Wendigo

The excellent horror/fantasy/sf author Mark Fuller Dillon has been sharing images from old pulp magazines with his Facebook pals, so I thought I'd share some of them with you. Most of them are sf illustrations, but some fall into the supernatural horror/fantasy category. This one by Matt Fox, is from Famous Fantastic Mysteries, June 1944. Click to enlarge.

Nunkie's Nice Nordic Pair

To the Lit and Phil in Newcastle, last night, to see the redoubtable Robert Lloyd Parry of Nunkie Theatre perform two more classic M.R. James stories. The choice of tales is interesting, pairing as it does the relatively mild but fun 'Number 13' with the much darker 'Count Magnus'. The link is of course that they are both tales of Nordic lands - the first set in the Danish city of Viborg, the second set mainly in rural Sweden.

'Number 13' makes a good opening feature, so to speak, because there are quite a few unforced laughs to be had with Mr Anderson's attempts to communicate in Danish. The most obvious bit of humour - Mr A's somewhat forced concoction of a poem in mock-Gothic style - was omitted. I think that's a sensible edit as it's perhaps a bit too silly, and it allows the story to be tightened up. And, as always, in hearing the tale performed I noticed a few things that I'd forgotten. Anderson catching sight of a bit of the undead baddie's robe as the former leans out of his window, for instance. I really should re-read this one. It's been a while.

The same goes for 'Count Magnus', which is arguably the most horrific Jamesian tale of all. I recall an interview (can't recall if it was radio or TV) in which the late Kingsley Amis praised the story, especially the Swedish innkeeper's description of the poacher who wasn't killed outright:
Hans Thorbjorn was standing with his back against a tree, and all the time he was pushing with his hands - pushing something away from him which was not there. So he was not dead. And they led him away, and took him to the house at Nykjoping, and he died before the winter; but he went on pushing with his hands.
I think this shows the genuine touch of genius that sets James apart. It's very understated, but it gets the job done more effectively than any amount of 'scary monster' word-painting. 'So he was not dead' is a brilliant line. Robert Lloyd Parry tackled this scene and others without attempting a Swedish (or Danish) accent, which seems sensible to me. It also made me wonder if Monty did try a 'foreign' voice when reading aloud?

It was a good evening's entertainment, and a substantial crowd of Newcastle literati gave the artiste hearty, well-earned applause. As I've said before, if you haven't seen one of these performances you are missing a very special treat.

Monday 4 November 2013

Closed to Submissions

ST is now closed to submissions for this year. I've received a lot of stories, many of them good, some of them excellent. I'm still reading 'em, but I'm sure I have enough for at least the next two issues. I'll be inviting submissions again sometime in the New Year. If you sent me a story and haven't heard from me, please be patient - I'm thinking!

The Green Book - Issue 2

The second issue of Brian J. Showers' excellent journal of writings on 'Irish Gothic, Supernatural, and Fantastic Literature' is pretty splendid.

It's always good to see Richard Dalby's name because he's one of he most knowledgeable experts on the ghost story tradition. In this issue he contributes a fascinating account of the life and works of Mervyn Wall, an author who has eluded me till now. He seems like a fascinating chap and I think I'll seek out his books, especially his mediaeval fantasies concerning an unfortunate monk.

Equally erudite is Albert Power, whose long essay 'Towards an Irish Gothic' reaches the high Romantic era and offers quite a few insights. I particularly like Power's learned but often humorous approach. Thus the author Regina Roche's novel Children of the Abbey 'displays a loose-limbed flakiness', a phrase as amusing as it is useful in genre criticism.

The big surprise of the issue (for me) was an article on Ray Bradbury. In 'The Long Reach of Green Shadows' Steve Gronert Ellerhof tackles the rather odd phase in Bradbury's screenwriting career when he was told by John Huston to go to Ireland and write a script for Moby Dick. There was, as Ellerhof observes, no legitimate reason to yank Bradbury out of Hollywood. Houston was just being massively egotistical and jerking a young author around. But Bradbury's time in Ireland did have an interesting influence on some of his later work.

Lord Dunsany was another eccentric egotist, and one whose work I must admit I find a bit difficult to get through. However, I was entertained by Nicola Gordon Bowe's essay on the eccentric baronet's collecting antics. Who'd have thought anyone could care that much about carpets?

As well as essays, The Green Book offers a very good review section, tackling an excellent range of publications. Again, much erudition and wit is on display, not least by Reggie Chamberlain-King who - to begin his review of a Rosa Mulholland collection with 'On average, one hundred and forty-four respectable authors are forgotten annually...'

I'm still working my way through the reviews, but I can highly recommend this volume on the strength of what I have read. It is good to know that the ghosts, banshees, witches, depraved monks, mad aristos, and of
course Little People of fair Hibernia are getting the attention they deserve.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

25 And Not Out!

Supernatural Tales 25

Issue 25 of ST is now available as a POD magazine or as a very cheaply-priced PDF. Click on the link over to the right to access the product page.

I think this issue is pretty darn good, though I say so myself. For a start, we have a splendid range of fiction. Peter Bell's 'The Refurbishment' is a cracking 'traditional' ghost story, with a contemporary setting - the author's native Liverpool. Totally different is Mike Chislett's 'The Middle Park', a reality-distorting tale in which he continues to explore the London of his imagination, a city so bizarre it might almost be real. That's in marked contrast to Chloe N. Clark's story 'Who Walks Beside You', a study in alienation that ponders the nameless things that may lie behind the most commonplace of lives. Very different again is 'Some Houses - A Rumination', in which Brian J. Showers visits an address in Dublin with a very odd, and slightly scorched, reputation. Gillian Bennett offers a comedy of mediumistic manners with a rather nasty twist in 'Murder, Lamentation, and the Guild of Ghosts'. And the longest story here is also, arguably, the most disturbing of all; Christopher Harman leads us underground for a ghost train ride in 'Dark Tracks'.

If you survive all that, there's also a review section in which I, your humble editor, poke about in the realms of Nineties horror television, and try to maintain a straight face. I also take a gander at a new DVD from Robert Lloyd Parry, and new books by two authors whose work has often graced ST, Tina Rath and Chico Kidd. The cover, by Sam Dawson, is suitably old school for this time of year. Cowled figure in a ruined abbey by moonlight? We got 'im.

All in all, there's a lot enjoy here, so why not explore an assortment of weird realms in the company of highly qualified guides? Bring your mittens and a hot water bottle, though, as it may turn a little chilly.

Sunday 27 October 2013

Hallowe'en Film Quiz 2. Name the Character!

Yes, another quiz - no cheating wjth that Google machine on the intertrons, now. Thirteen classic movies (or at least, favourites of mine), and thirteen memorable horror movie villains, heroes, ghosts, victims... Just name names, and we'll let you off with a caution. Oh, and I've mixed some non-supernatural movies in this time (though definitions vary, and some are certainly genre-benders).

1. Nice easy one to start...

2. Off on one of my predictable excursions to the Orient.

3. And while we're in Japan...

4. Now here's a classic that I love.

5. And here's a non-classic by any standard - as a movie. We're looking for the girl in the dress, not the guy who's probably lost his deposit on that suit.

6. Time for another legendary actor chappie. Remember, it's the character we want.

7. Lawks, they don't get much classier than this bloke. But who's he playing?

8. Two names needed, here.

9. And two names needed here, as it happens.

10.  Use a bit of lateral thinking...

11. We all know the film, but what was the given name of the baddie/monster?

12. Skip Martin is the actor, playing a Poe character - sort of.

13. And finally, a great moment from one of the best Hammer films. But who is the hapless visionary?

Saturday 26 October 2013

Quiz Answers!

The almost unbearable excitement of the Rapidly-Approaching-Hallowe'en Movie Quiz had literally several people trying to name the films in question. So, in case you were wondering who was right about what, here are the answers.

1. Tales from the Crypt (UK 1972)
Yes, it's Joan Collins discovering that when you're naughty, Santa is mightily displeased.

2. A Tale of Two Sisters (Korea 2003) 
A twisty plot recounting the very bizarre and bloody events of one fateful day, with a truly horrific finale.

3. The Asphyx (UK 1973)
Robert Stephens and Robert Powell battle death itself! Guess who wins?

4. Night/Curse of the Demon (UK 1957)
Brian Wilde, aka Foggy Dewhirst, does not go downhill in an old bathtub on wheels.

5. Dead of Night (UK 1945)
Golf really is a good walk spoiled in this fairly jolly interlude.

6. The Haunting (UK/US 1963)
The ultimate Gothic haunted house movie, for my money. Has it been bettered?

7. Kuroneko (Japan 1968)
Sexy and stylish tale of supernatural vengeance.

8. Kwaidan (Japan 1964)
Anthology of old folk tales retold by Lafcadio Hearn - wonderful stuff.

9. The Orphanage (Spain 2007)
Very effective and ultimately moving tale. 'Alas! Poor ghosts...'

10. The Devil Rides Out (UK 1968)
'We meet again Mr Bond... No, hang on a minute...'

11. The Eye (Hong Kong 2002)
Memorable ghosts in a film that takes itself just seriously enough to work superbly.

12. The Fog (US 1980)
Avoid rich lepers with swords would seem to be the moral of this story.

13. The Reptile (UK 1966)
The lovely Jacqueline Pearce in a Hammer classic.

Well, they're certainly clustering around two periods. There's that 'films I saw on late-night telly when I was young' period - the mid-to-late Seventies. Then there are the Asian horror movies I got into about fifteen years ago. Surprising dearth of American movies, I notice. 

'Lost Estates'

This is part of a running review of  Lost Estates  by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press 2024) The title story of the collection! And it begin...