Tuesday 30 April 2013

The White Ship

I went to the seaside today and did not have any spooky experiences. I did have chips, so, result. But I like all forms of nautical spookery and weirdness. Here's a musical example.

Sunday 28 April 2013

Horror & American Pessimism

I just watched the film YellowBrickRoad (and yes, the title is written that way). The first few minutes and the last few seconds are very good. The eighty-odd minutes in the middle are mostly tedious, irritating, and probably not worth your effort, dear reader. Let me explain why.

The basic set-up is this:
1940: the entire population of Friar, New Hampshire walked up a winding mountain trail, leaving everything behind. 2008: the first official expedition into the wilderness attempts to solve the mystery of the lost citizens of Friar.
There's more, of course. Some of the townsfolk are killed along the trail and their mutilated bodies discovered later. Most of them simply vanish into the woods (I've no idea how credible this is - my knowledge of American wilderness areas is sadly limited). One survivor returns to be interviewed, but a recording merely shows that he has been maddened by a strange sound. So much for backstory.

The narrative proper begins when an academic goes to some unspecified but distinctly run-down government office and is given a file on the mysterious incident. He receives the hitherto-suppressed material from a rather friendly bureaucrat whose face we never see properly, because he's behind a grubby glass screen. This is Ligottian stuff, and I hoped for more of it. Unfortunately the film rapidly turns into another one of those 'Last Broadcast' rip-offs, in which a disparate group of rather stupid people get lost in the woods, encounter weird stuff, and die one by one, usually in horrible ways.

Tuesday 23 April 2013

A New Book!

When I got back from Sussex last Thursday I found not one but two of those red card thingies from the postman. One of them I knew related to a DVD box set that a friend kindly sent me on loan. (Game of Thrones, Season 2, if you must know.) The other was more mysterious. Imagine my surprise when, having toddled down the road to the depot, I retried two hefty parcels. One was indeed the American TV series that is firming up the pension schemes of so many fine British actors. The other was this...

Yes, it's a volume of tales by Mark Valentine, who is surely one of the top chaps of modern English weird fiction. As you can see, it's a typical Tartarus hardback, produced to the highest standards and a thing of
beauty in itself. But what of the contents?

Well, in Herald of the Hidden you will find all the stories involving Mark Valentine's occult sleuth, Ralph Tyler, plus several stand-alone tales. The Tyler tales were previously published from the mid-Eighties onward in chapbooks, here and there. I was aware of one rarity, 14 Bellchamber Tower, but never managed to bag a copy. So it was, as they always say, with great interest that I began reading.

Now, while I enjoy Mark Valentine's fiction, I have mixed feelings about the sub-genre of occult detection. Supernatural phenomena (in fiction) should be just barely comprehensible enough to be frightening or awe-inspiring - they should never be explained away, or at least not entirely. For this reason I never took to Carnacki and find John Silence a bit of a bore. But I was pleased to discover that Mark Valentine created Tyler as something of an antidote the myriad know-it-all experts with an access-all-areas pass. Such characters are just variations on Sherlock Holmes with an ectoplasm detector.

Tyler is indeed very unlike Carnacki or Silence, being essentially a normal bloke with an abnormal interest in unusual phenomena. Add to that very well-described English settings - in and around Northamptonshire - and you get some very satisfying yarns. Traditionalists will love the prevalence of small villages, rural churches, and stately homes. Those who like second-guessing the author will enjoy trying to work out just what is going on before Tyler does the big reveal. (Assuming he does - another winning aspect of the stories is that Tyler doesn't always tell all to his clients, because he doesn't always sympathise with their aims.)

Most of these are early stories, and judging from his introduction the author finds them a bit rough. But all display Mark Valentine's elegant command of narrative, his economical turn of phrase, and his fascination with the odd byways of history and folklore. I'll have a lengthier review in due course.

Friday 19 April 2013

MRJ Headstone Restoration

At Rye I found that E.F. Benson's grave is very modest, because the distant relative responsible didn't like him very much, and didn't even bother spelling his name correctly. The EFB Society does its best, but there's only so much that can be done with what amounts to a perfunctory resting place - an afterthought rather than a memorial. By coincidence, the other day I found this reminder of how M.R. James' admirers restored his grave at Eton at the turn of the century. I wasn't there, I hasten to add - but I got the little brochure because I contributed a few bob.

Thursday 18 April 2013

Rye Observations

I just got back from Rye in Sussex, a town so stuffed with history that it hardly has room for anything modern. I stayed at the Mermaid Inn, which is a lovely (if rather pricey) establishment, formerly favoured by smugglers. In the pic below you can see the sign of the Mermaid. The sign was knocked off by a van on Wednesday, but quickly replaced. The Mermaid, of course, has a resident ghost, but did not manifest itself to me. This is a regular non-event when I stay in a historic inn or some such.

Mermaid Street, Rye

Sunday 14 April 2013

The Supernatural Stories of H.G. Wells

This article originally appeared in All Hallows, the journal of the Ghost Story Society, in 1996. As I don't have it in any usable format, I thought I'd simply scan in the proof copy. Let's see if it works. Click to enlarge and all that...

Saturday 13 April 2013

Gothic Noir, Silvered Dreams

I know next to nothing about photography, but sometimes I stumble upon a photograph that speaks to me. It  usually begins with 'You know nothing about photography', admittedly, but it sometimes expands on this and points out that I'm missing out on the work of an interesting artist. So it is with a postcard I recently received (along with a very welcome subscription renewal) from a reader in Texas. The postcard features a 'hand-tones silver-gelatin photograph by Rocky Schenck. And if you don't know Mr Schenck's work, try this for size:

Yes, that is Nicole Kidman, the former Mrs Cruise. So this Schenck chap is probably quite successful, given that his commercial portfolio includes quite a few celebs. But his site also features what might loosely be termed fantastic or strange images, and I think people who enjoy supernatural fiction might well appreciate it. Here are a few examples:

Dream Sequence

Cemetery Screening

9th and Lake

Every picture hints at a story. I should add that if you click on an image above you get it enlarged, and a little 'slideshow' thingy appears. Did I mention that I'm old?

Tuesday 9 April 2013

Dark Adventures in Space, Time, and Gibbering Terror!

I can't remember when I first came across the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, but it must have been a good while ago. I have, rather oddly, been a Lovecraft fan for many years, despite never finding his stories remotely frightening. I know, it's weird. But it's not Lovecraft's fault - most horror stories don't scare me much, if truth be told, because the things regular human beings do to each other are far worse than those dreamed up by authors. No, I like Lovecraft because his stories are elaborate mental games with the reader. How much can we guess before he reveals it? How blatantly will he telegraph his punches? And how many adjectives can he cram into one sentence?

All of which is rather irrelevant preamble to my look at the excellent series of dramas from Dark Adventure Radio Theatre. Even if you don't like audio drama, the quality of these adaptations should impress you. The latest, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, is a two CD job, offering a detailed (one might say loving) dramatisation of one of Lovecraft's most accomplished novels. Indeed, as adaptations go I'd say it bears comparison to Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace, which was scripted by Richard Matheson and starred Vincent Price. (The other film adaptation, The Resurrected (1992), starts so poorly that I've never been able to get past the first few minutes.)

CDW is a tricky one to adapt, because - like most Lovecraft stories - it is long on wordage but fairly short on action. Basically, a young man becomes obsessed with an ancestor who, having been an evil sorcerer, uses arcane methods to indulge in a very drastic form of identity theft. But the real meat of the narrative is the historical stuff, with its evocation of Massachusetts around the time of Salem witch mania. In the DART version these scenes are lively, and clearly gave the cast opportunity to let rip as a bunch of superstitious and often rather violent colonial Puritans. The scenes set in the early 20th century, by contrast, seem a tad restrained.

Young Charles and a family portrait

Friday 5 April 2013

Where's my old chemistry set?

This is one of the spiffing extras from the brilliant two-disc version of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which arrived today. More to follow, probably. I daresay I'll write a review of the drama, too, at some point. Maybe I'll do a bumper all-in-one look at all the dramatic emanations of the HPLHS...

Thursday 4 April 2013

Blast from the past...

Now I've started rummaging around among my old books and stuff, I can't stop. I have here, for instance, a copy of the Wark Annual for 1979. It's another Ro Pardoe production, and - like all her publications - chock full of goodies. It's actually famous (or notorious) for the article partially reproduced above, entitled 'Duck, You Suckers!', in which Joseph Nicholas delivered a devastating broadside against the amateurish standards of fantasy fanzines. Anyone who thinks the Good Old Days meant higher standards of critical insight, or even basic literacy, might care to think again. Most of what Nicholas said then is still applicable. The only difference is that, instead of photocopied 'zines, the chosen medium of half-baked twaddle is the blog (ahem). I must try harder...

Oh, and the cracking illustration of Medusa (or so I assume it to be) was the work of Dave Carson.


Votes are dribbling in for the best story in ST#23. Remember, the winning author will receive the almost generous sum of £25, which might be enough to buy a lot of biscuits at Poundland, or a plastic toy for a gerbil. Yes, modern publishing is very much a winner-take-something game. So vote for your favourite story now! Or whenever is convenient. You can let me know by email, post, or indeed by simply commenting below.

Wednesday 3 April 2013

Chapbook Corner

I was looking for something, and - as you do - I found some things that were interesting, but none of which were the thing I was looking for. One thing I'd forgotten about was this chapbook from Ro Pardoe's Haunted Library, published in 1984.

It's a short story by Ramsey Campbell. I vaguely recall receiving it, but have no idea whether it was a gift or a purchase (or perhaps a bribe for 'services rendered', but we'll say no more about that). Anyway, if anyone asks you for a supernatural tale that involves a parrot, confident that you will say 'How Love Came to Professor Guildea', you can amaze them by naming this one instead. And, yes, the story does revolve around the parrot's most famous and entertaining ability.

I may start looking out other obscure publications. I'm sure you'll be fascinated to hear about them in the weeks, months, aeons to come...

Tuesday 2 April 2013

A Game of Books (and Telly)

I first read George R.R. Martin's fiction in the late Seventies. I can't recall if the first of his books that I encountered was the short story collection A Song for Lya, or the novel Dying of the Light. Both are excellent, by the way, and both foreshadow the Martin mega-saga that has now become the TV series Game of Thrones.

What Martin did in his early, award-winning sf was emulate earlier authors, notably Robert Heinlein, Cordwainer Smith, and Larry Niven, by creating a detailed future history. In the universe he imagined the human race struck out for the stars, colonised strange and scary worlds, and encountered interesting and sometimes very powerful aliens. Most of his early stories, plus that one straight sf novel, were set in a galaxy some centuries after a catastrophic war with two rival alien empires fragmented the human race into various regional powers. This Balkanised sector of the galaxy, the Manrealm, was a backdrop for some well-written, often lyrical, and sometimes violently action-packed tales.

Unfortunately, like so many before him, Martin didn't make a living from writing very good science fiction. So, to the slight bafflement of admirers like me, after collaborating with Lisa Tuttle on a rather good 'low-tech' sci-fi novel, Windhaven, he tried his hand at writing novels in the rather different (albeit related) horror genre. The results, Fevre Dream and The Armageddon Rag, are both rather good.

Fevre Dream is the story of the eponymous Mississippi riverboat that becomes a floating vampire lair. Interestingly Martin, perhaps because of his sf background, gives his vampires no supernatural qualities - they are predatory human-like sub-species, possessed of great strength and hypnotic powers, but not actually undead. I recall enjoying this one a lot at the time, not least because of Martin's smoothly efficient inclusion of a lot of research material on the pre-Civil War US.

The second novel is a foray into Stephen King territory, to some extent, with its central premise - a revived Sixties rock group that is somehow primed to bring about apocalyptic events. I can see why people didn't like The Armageddon Rag - it's not feel-good fiction, though it's well-written and full of interesting (and sometimes amusing) characters.

Martin also produced some very good short fiction that does qualify as supernatural. The story 'Portraits of his Children', for instance, is about a self-absorbed writer who cares more about his characters than his own family. He gets a very well-described comeuppance in a tale that explores the blatant egotism that undoubtedly drives many a bestselling author. 'The Monkey Treatment' is a grimly comic tale of an obese man who seeks an unorthodox weight loss method. Another early story, 'Sandkings', about alien social insects that are unwisely kept as pets, was adapted as a rather disappointing episode of the revived Outer Limits.

Most Martin's short fiction has been collected in Dreamsongs, a two-volume set. I can recommend it to anyone who likes well-crafted stories that are, by and large, tightly plotted, strong on character, and full of interesting ideas.

Helen Grant - a new novel!

Up-and-coming author Helen Grant, whose stories graced early issues of ST, is launching her new novel this week. As you can see from this blog post, she went to Belgium over the Easter weekend, because the book, Silent Saturday, is set there. (Who knew they had a branch of Waterstones in Brussels? Well, they do.)

While Helen's novels are not supernatural fiction, and are aimed at teen readers, they are very absorbing and intelligent thrillers. I think her work has a lot to offer readers of all ages. But, if you happen to know a younger person who likes books, one of Helen's would surely make an ideal birthday or Christmas gift.

Monday 1 April 2013

Dollhouse of terror...

Over at A Podcast to the Curious, Will and Mike talk about M.R. James' story written for Queen Mary's huge, posh dolls' house. As always it's a very interesting chat with lots of background detail and anecdotes. Also, there are links to notes and other information.

If you're familiar with the story, you'll recall that it's one of the more nasty MRJ yarns. It features the killing of innocent children (as in 'Lost Hearts') and a supernatural device that the author himself admits is a reworking of 'The Mezzotint'. For some reason I like this one - it seems to add up to more than the sum of its parts.

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...