Tuesday 28 May 2013

The Green Book - out now!

I'm not sure about reviewing something that has me in it, but let me say that the first issues of The Green Book is rather spiffing all round.

The brief of TGB is 'Writings on Irish Gothic, Supernatural and Fantastic Literature', which is quite a broad brief. In his Editor's Note, Brian J. Showers gives his eminently good reasons for focusing on Irish weird fiction, and makes clear that his approach will be very inclusive. And that is certainly the case with the contents of the first issue.

Part One of Albert Power's extended essay 'Towards and Irish Gothic' begins the first issue in fine style. I admit that my knowledge of some of the texts mentioned is pretty much non-existent. That didn't stop me enjoying Power's erudite and poetic exploration of stories that range from, in his words, 'Celtic Crochets to Castles of Dread'. As an introduction to the subject that impresses with the depth and range of Irish literature, this would be hard to beat. Factually fascinating, this essay is also beautifully written.

Passing over my own piece on Conor McPherson, which is lightweight stuff by comparison, we find more erudition in 'The Charm of Old Women's Tales: Le Fanu's Use of Oral Tradition'. The distinguished folklorist Jacqueline Simpson focuses on the use of traditional Irish stories in Le Fanu's novels and short stories. As she observes, the author was sometimes rather condescending and flippant about the beliefs of 'the common people', but at his best he employs folklore to remarkable effect. Indeed, the simple directness of an oral narrative is contrasted with Le Fanu's unfortunate tendency to clutter his stories with too many 'authorities' and bits and bobs of supposed verification.

That's followed by Dan Studer's piece on the Belfast Forrest Reid, an author unfamiliar to me. Reid achieved some critical acclaim before his death in 1947, and in 'Adventures of a Dream Child' Studer makes a strong case for Reid's unique virtues as a writer on childhood. A good article on an unknown writer makes you want to see out the subject's work, and I certainly would like to acquaint myself with Reid's now-neglected novels.

Michael Dirda's 'Four-Leaf Clovers' also looks at lesser-known authors, making a strong case for so-called minor writers as easier to get on with than the literary giants. Among the Irish writers Dirda champions are James Stephens (The Crock of Gold), Flann O'Brien, and Lord Dunsany. What they have in common is, as Dirda observes, a prolific inventiveness in colourful prose that amounts to 'elegant blarney'. Again, there's an author I'd never heard of - Mervyn Wall, creator Brother Fursey, a mediaeval monk who strikes a deal with the Devil - from the best of motives.

The Green Book #1 also contains a substantial review section, and generally has the heft of a serious journal with the light touch of a more 'fannish' publication. It's a hard balance to strike, between serious scholarship and entertaining the interested lay reader, and I think it's been struck almost perfectly here.

Monday 27 May 2013

Coming attractions!

Supernatural Tales #24 will be out in August, which isn't that far off, really. It's nearly June! The contents, barring any mishaps, will be as follows (though not necessarily in this order):

Sean Logan - 'Dollhouse by the Sea'
Lynda  E. Rucker - 'The Wife's Lament'
Steve Goldsmith - 'The Boys With the Ball'
John Llewellyn Probert - 'A Life on the Stage'
Michael Abolafia - 'Omnia Exeunt in Mysterium'
Sam Dawson - 'Man Under'
Jane Jakeman - 'Majorlena'

Key words for the above stories are - hotel, Birmingham, drunk, ballet, mother, trains, flies. Well, that's how I remember them.

Thursday 23 May 2013

Review: Herald of the Hidden, by Mark Valentine

This collection of tales spans the years 1983 to 2009, and offers an interesting selection of Mark Valentine's work. Most of them concern the investigations of Ralph Tyler, an 'occult sleuth' of a slightly unusual sort. Unlike Hodgson's Carnacki, Blackwood's John Silence, or Le Fanu's Dr Hesselius, Tyler is a regular bloke with no powerful connections or unusual resources. He resides at 14 Bellchamber Tower, but this is not so elegant a residence at the name suggests. His methods are simply those of the researcher, coupled with a bit of initiative and a tendency to try and do the right thing - sometimes in defiance of his client's wishes.

There is an obvious problem with the psychic sleuth format. Each story contains the germ of its own failure by telling the reader that the hero will not die, or be otherwise rendered hors de combat. While this is fine in a TV series of the X-Files variety (and there are a lot of them around), on the printed page it does somewhat undermine one of the key appeals of the weird tale - that the highest stakes being played for.

Setting aside my own personal prejudices, though, the Ralph Tyler stories are excellent of their kind. As the author explains in his introduction, Tyler is from Northampton, and his cases concern incidents taking place in a landlocked county that is often overlooked. And, while these are early stories, the author's trademark erudition is always in evidence as he leads us down unusual byways of history, folklore, and general scholarship.

Wednesday 22 May 2013

Hello Goths!

Apparently it's World Goth Day, so let's hear it for the Germanic tribes that disrupted the later Roman Empire, and even sacked the Eternal City itself...

Only kidding. It's the day to celebrate courageous make-up strategies, colour-free sartorial tastes, and a general sub-culture that is - in my experience - charming, intelligent, and fun. Go Goths!

In noodling about this topic this morning I found a highly instructional video for any young person of today who is wondering if they should go full Goth. It's true, you know - you always see Goths in couples.

Tuesday 21 May 2013

Richard Marsh Exhibition: It's Creepy in Crawley!

Richard Marsh was, in his day, one of the best-known authors in Britain. His proto-horror novel The Beetle (1897) rivalled Dracula. As someone remarked, friends are better than critics, and now there's an exhibition dedicated to Marsh's life and work. Here is the link, where you will find the facts:
The Beetle, published in 1897, is the tale of a shape-changing Egyptian creature that comes to London seeking revenge on a leading MP, which greatly outsold its close rival Dracula (published the same year). In 1910 Marsh's publishers felt able to call him 'the most popular living author'. 
A lesson there, I think, for any writer who worries that they've failed to win recognition. It is, to say the least, ephemeral in most cases.

The author Robert Aickman was the grandson of Richard Marsh. He was the only child of a rather odd and unhappy union between Marsh's daughter Mabel and the much older William Aickman.

Monday 20 May 2013

Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990)

I am not well. Some sort of virus laid me low on Sunday night, and I crawled off to bed with much sweating and shivering. Then, this morning, came the attack of the squitters that led me to conclude I am ill and not merely feeling a bit under the weather. Oh well. A bit of cinema is always good for me when I'm feeling low, so I decided to watch, for a second time, Kurosawa's portmanteau magical realist portmanteau movie.

Akira Kurosawa's Dreams is a Japanese-American co-production - 'Stephen Spielberg Presents' are the first three words to appear on the screen, and Martin Scorsese cameos as Van Gogh. The film comprises eight stories, all based on the director's dreams at different stages of his life.

The first story, 'Sunshine Through the Rain', is about a little boy who ignores his mother's advice and goes into the woods on a day when the sun is shining, but it is also raining. In this weather, he is warned, foxes hold their weddings - and they do not take kindly to those who spy on them. The fox wedding, performed by masked dancers, evokes the wonder and terror of early childhood. The little boy is spotted by the foxes, and  faces a terrible challenge.

The second story, 'The Peach Orchard', scores highly for me because a. it's about dolls coming to life, which  is something all right-thinking persons should find disturbing and b. it is visually stunning. The little boy, having survived his vulpine ordeal, is lured to the remains of the orchard, which his family have cut down. The household dolls (apparently there is or was a festival called Doll Day) berate him for the crime against the trees, whose spirits they personify. But the boy's insistence that he wanted to save the orchard for unselfish reasons - and not just because he likes peaches - wins over the strange spirits, leading to a moment of magical beauty as the dolls perform a slow dance on the bare orchard terraces.

'The Blizzard' is less effective, perhaps because it offers an overly-familiar scenario and little real drama. A group of climbers are lost on a mountain, and as they begin to succumb to cold and exhaustion their leader is visited by a strange ghost-like creature. This is very like the 'Woman of the Snows' sequence in Kwaidan, but is rather weak by comparison.

'The Tunnel' also draws on conventional ideals of manliness, as an army officer returns home from a PoW camp after Japan's defeat in 1945. As he approaches a dark mountain tunnel he encounters are snarling dog that carries a pack of stick grenades - a genuinely disturbing variant on the 'dogs of war' idea. Then, having emerged from the tunnel, the officer is forced to confront his old platoon, which was wiped out thanks to his orders. Dead or alive, the soldiers will still obey orders. But what of the vicious beast that literally dogs the conscience-stricken officer? The dream imagery works especially well here, contrasting the supposed nobility of the warrior with the bestial nature of aggression.

'Crows' sees a Japanese student wearing Kurosawa's trademark hat venture into the realm of Van Gogh's paintings. Brilliant colours and rustic scenes predominate, and Scorsese's performance strikes me as pretty good. There's even a clever joke about poor old Vincent's ear. Many films have attempted to take the audience into the realm of the creative imagination, but this short sequence succeeds where more elaborate efforts have failed.

'Mount Fuji in Red' is interesting but oddly lacking in impact, despite being about the explosion of a Japanese nuclear reactor. While it obviously harks back to Chernobyl, it also seems prescient given more recent events at Fukushima. However, the combination of slightly naff effects (this is one case where CGI would definitely have done it better) and some very preachy dialogue undercuts the horror of the story. It is a nightmare vision, certainly, but - like most of the later stories - it clumsily foregrounds environmental concerns. Sincere, yes, but a bit irritating.

The same can be said for 'The Weeping Demon', in which the student of the two previous tales finds himself wandering a post-apocalyptic wilderness in which some people - the corrupt, rich, and powerful - have been transformed into demons. There's a nice, grimly humorous touch when a demon with one horn explains that this puts him at the bottom of the pecking order, because horns indicate status. However, horns also bring pain, so the higher the status the more suffering these immortal beings must bear. This is apparently a retelling of a Buddhist fable.

'Village of the Watermills' sees our hero find his way to a rustic idyll, where yet another garrulous character explains what's wrong with modern, technological society. The main flaw with AKD is simply that, whenever anyone talks for more than ten seconds, they tend to spout clich├ęs. Here we learn that the modern world is too full of 'inventions', people don't really like their lives, we'd all be happier if we lived more simply. All this may be true, but it feels wrong in an exercise in magical realism. Fortunately, the final sequence culminates in a final, brilliant set piece that speaks far more eloquently of Kurosawa's dreams of pastoral contentment.

It's interesting that, while AKD is the work of one of cinema's greatest exponents, it has all the familiar strengths and weaknesses of the portmanteau horror genre. Some sections are simply weak and poorly-realised, some are over-long or otherwise self-indulgent. But it is also a treasure trove of wonderful images; dreams that may well inspire dreams.

Sunday 19 May 2013

Queen Mary's Dolls' House

Sorry I haven't blogged lately - not a lot going on that is relevant to ST. But 'certain things' have arisen, and I'll blog about them next week, honest. In the meantime, M.R. James fans might enjoy this little film.

Thursday 9 May 2013

Mark Valentine: An Incomplete Apocalypse

The Dark Side of J.B. Priestley

Over at the excellent Valancourt books one can find all sorts of interesting things. Among them is this volume of short stories:

By coincidence, a few weeks ago Radio 4 Extra ran a series of readings of weird tales, and among them was Priestley's 'The Grey Ones'. I had always assumed that, while his famous Time Plays flirt with the paranormal/mystical, Priestley was mostly concerned with what might loosely be termed social realism. But it turns out that he ranged rather widely and - in a very prolific and long career - often tackled horror, science fiction, and the supernatural.

My ignorance of Priestley's contribution to genre fiction is a bit embarrassing, as I really should have known that his novel Benighted was the basis for a classic horror movie.

Overall, the Valancourt site is well worth perusing if - like me - you have a mental file of titles you once read and really would to read again. 

For instance, there are the novels of John Blackburn. Blackburn is almost forgotten today, but he was a kind of proto-James Herbert (it's hard to believe that Herbert didn't take Blackburn's novels as a template for his own, so striking are the parallels). His books combine the horror, thriller and sci-fi genres, and he was an early exponent of what is now termed body horror. 

I read Bury Him Darkly (1958) as a wee lad when I encountered a dog-eared paperback edition in the early Seventies. A strange artefact is unearthed in a family crypt, and it has terrifying powers to alter the minds and bodies of unwary meddlers. There's a quite loopy plot strand dragging in the Holy Grail, which isn't bad for what is in fact an alien invasion story. This is a book in which the idiot who opens the crypt, as is the form in these cases, 'dies a horrible death, raving mad, and whatever he has unleashed is not done killing. Four unlikely allies—a clergyman, an ex-Nazi scientist, a journalist, and a historian—must come together to stop it before it destroys all of humanity.'

Cor! It's thrilling stuff. I can't help wondering if Blackburn was born slightly out of his time, as his work might have gone down better in the Fifties - the Quatermass/Hammer & B-movie era - or the late Seventies/early Eighties, when there was a horror boom. The Sixties was a fallow patch for horror, at least in the English-speaking world - too much love and peace, man. Had it been otherwise, Blackburn's work might have found its way to the small and/or big screen, and so become part of our pop culture. The literary life is, as has been remarked so many times, very chancy.

Tuesday 7 May 2013

RIP Ray Harryhausen

Fraudsters and Families

I love supernatural fiction, which is why I publish it. But I have no time for those who tout their supposed real-life expertise in the paranormal as a way of conning vulnerable and/or foolish people. So-called psychics are particularly contemptible in this regard. And this week's startling news item about three young women rescued from captivity in a house in Ohio has only underlined the point that psychics and mediums can do tremendous  harm.

You probably know the basic facts. Three teenagers were kidnapped about ten years ago. They were rescued when one of them managed to attract the attention of a neighbour in Cleveland. (And the interview with that neighbour, Charles Ramsey, is well worth seeing - he may be the coolest person in the world right now.) 

For me, though, one of the saddest aspects of the case is that the mother of one of the victims found alive this week was told by a psychic that her daughter was dead. The psychic, Sylvia Browne, was just playing the odds, of course. A teenage girl vanishes, no clue is discovered by the police or the FBI - chances are she's dead. So she told a distraught, vulnerable woman she would see her daughter 'in heaven'. Louvana Miller, Amanda Berry's mother, died from heart failure in 2006. I've no idea if she would have lived to see her daughter rescued if she hadn't put her faith in a psychic's assertion that Amanda was dead.

It's easy to dismiss psychics are mere entertainers who provide us all with a bit of harmless fun. Cases like this prove that they, are at best, deluded, publicity-hungry idiots. At worst they are cold, manipulative people who make their money by preying on the emotional frailties of others. And that makes them psychopaths, not psychics.

Monday 6 May 2013

Trailer Time

I'm pleased to announce that one of the stories in ST#24, due out at the beginning of August, will be 'The Wife's Lament' by Lynda E. Rucker. It's an intriguing and (I think) moving tale of a young American who moves to England with her husband, only to find herself isolated and confused. Surely the wood she found at the end of her suburban street can't be a figment of her imagination? And what is the significance of the ancient artefact she discovered?
The rain lessened once she found herself under the canopy of trees, and then stopped. If the forest had seemed sickly and diseased earlier, now it was all but dead. Its misshapen trees had gone white and ghostly, thin fingers of leafless branches pale against the storm-wracked sky. The earth reeked of decay. Thick ropy briar fences replaced the vegetation that had once grown there. Only her panting breath stirred the silence. The brooch hurt her hand; she was gripping it too tightly, cutting into her own flesh, but she could not let it go.

'The Wife's Lament' is based on the early English poem of the same name, which is fascinating in its ambiguity.

The Kingston Brooch

Sunday 5 May 2013

The Ward (2010)

So, there I was on Saturday night, quaffing what might be termed a amusing little vintage (Chateau Demented Wallaby), and wondering what film to watch. I decide to give The Ward a try, with nothing but a very brief online synopsis to go on. Imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a John Carpenter film I'd never heard of. And, yes, it has some characteristic Carpenter touches.

So, what's the deal? The film begins with a girl called Kristen (Amber Heard) setting fire to a farmhouse. The police drag her away and she is taken to a Big Spooky Mental Hospital, where - as it's 1966) she is subject to mid-20th century treatments i.e. lots of drugs and voltage across the frontal lobe. However, thanks to the apparently enlightened policy of Dr Stringer (British thesp Jared Harris), Kristen and the other girls on the special ward are allowed to draw, watch TV, listen to music, and even go outside.

From the start, questions abound. Why can't Kristen remember anything before the fire? What happened to 'Tammy', the previous inmate of Kristen's room? Who is the ghost-girl on the ward? Who are 'the sad people' seen with Stringer? When the ghost starts killing off the patients with variations on Stringer's treatments (i.e. an over-enthusiastic lobotomy), it seems we're in fairly conventional territory. Will Kristen be able to escape from North Bend hospital before she, too, is killed?

The first hour and a bit of The Ward is a well-crafted, well-acted movie that offers a few shocks, but is more interesting as a psychological thriller. Then comes Kristen's escape attempt, which is a bit of classic Carpenter - feisty girl takes on a bunch of authority figures and isn't afraid to punch them out when required. The escape goes wrong when the ghost intervenes, however, and this leads to a revelation about the sad people and the nature of the ghost, Alice.

I enjoyed The Ward not because it is radically new and daring, but because it's a fine example of a film that achieves what it sets out to do. The pace doesn't flag, the performances are good, and the look of the thing is what you'd expect from Carpenter - sometimes excellent, never dull.

Saturday 4 May 2013

Well Done, Michael!

Best New Horror #24 will contain 'October Dreams' by Michael Kelly. It appeared in ST#22, last autumn. Here is a recording of me reading it (though the accent should be American). It's a very short story, but I think that is, in part, what gives it a remarkable poetic impact.

Friday 3 May 2013

Dr James & His Legacy


For some reason, trousers are funny in a way that - say - shirts are not. This has been an established truth for centuries, as the following drama demonstrates. It's a version of one of the famous Ingoldsby Legends, which were published from 1837 by Thomas Barham. While a few of the stories and poems are moderately serious, most are frivolous, and none more so than 'The Spectre of Tappington'. This old radio recording is a bit crackly etc, but I think it comes across quite well.

Silent Saturday

Have started reading Helen Grant's new (non supernatural, probably) novel Silent Saturday. It's a fascinating story of a lonely girl who gets involved with an unusual tribe of modern-day explorers. The book is the first of a trilogy called Forbidden Spaces. Here's the trailer.

Tellers of Weird Tales

Now here is an excellent blog, dedicated to the writers and artists whose work appeared in Weird Tales during its classic years and after. I've already learned a lot from it, and enjoyed just rambling around finding out stuff, being reminded of things I'd forgotten I'd read, and so on. And there are pictures, too!

Wednesday 1 May 2013

May Day!

May Day is a fascinating time of the year... Well, no it's not, at least not where I live. But in other parts of the world people get very excited and do strange things. For instance, over at Helen Grant's blog, you can read about the odd German custom that features in her first novel, The Vanishing of Katharina Linden.

This German custom involves humiliating defenceless, innocent houses...

Lovecraftian Elder Chimney Sweep?

A poetry pamphlet has arrived for May Day

And here is the factual information that came with it.

As well as cracking poems the pamphlet includes a rather touching history of Peterborough's Fantasy Fairs, which ran from 1992 for over a decade. And, as usual, Cardinal Cox's sense of humour is on display, along with his erudition and fascination with the arcane. I won't quote from 'Sasquatch Porn', but I had a chuckle. Instead, here's 'A R'lyeh Limerick'.

Old Deity Cthulhu
Who was well known as one who
One day would awake
Set oceans a-quake
When stars' alignment was true.

Read an AI generated ghost story

I gave MS Copilot the following prompt, which is not complex and you can see where problems arose.. Please write a ghost story in the style ...