Monday 30 September 2013

Robert Westall on the Wireless

Robert Westall's 1991 novella, 'The Stones of Muncaster Cathedral', is a pretty neat modern Gothic tale of a steeplejack repairing the eponymous (fictional) edifice. He becomes a bit fixated on an evil-looking gargoyle and it emerges that the thing is linked to sorcery and a hidden chamber in the structure. It's well-worth reading, but if you like radio drama you can hear an adaptation made by the BBC here.

Friday 27 September 2013

Building a Spooky Library - The Silver Age

It is generally accepted (albeit in a slightly grumpy, 'It's a bit more complicated than that, dash it all!' sort of way) that the Golden Age of British supernatural fiction was roughly the period from about 1890 to 1914. It's the Edwardian Era Plus, really - a time when the Victorian age was coming to an end but the final disillusionment with its supposed certainties had yet to materialise. It was the period when Blackwood, Machen, and M.R. James burst onto the scene. It was also the era of weird fiction to suit any brow, from low to ultra-high, with notable contributions from Conan Doyle, Kipling, Stoker, Wells, Rider Haggard, E. Nesbit, Edith Wharton, Henry James, M.P. Shiel, and other too numerous etcetera.

Much of this was down to the health of the publishing industry. In the 1890s serial publication of novels was well-established and magazines also paid rather well for short stories. Magazines had bigger circulations than ever before because in the late 19th-century compulsory mass education had created a huge reading public. Every sort of fiction flourished, so it's hardly surprising that tales of ghosts, vampires, mummies, man-eating plants and myriad other assorted weirdies were churned out by the hundred. Most were poor stuff, but the cream of the crop set a standard that hasn't really been bettered.

Then came the Great War. Magazine publishing didn't die out, but it took a body blow from the economic turmoil that struck Britain (and of course much of the wider world). That literate audience was still around, but it had less money to spent on frivolities. And the war had produced a change in outlook - if not outright pessimism, then certainly a loss of the old Victorian audacity, so that imaginative fiction of the inter-war years often seems anaemic. And yet the Twenties and Thirties produced a fair crop of British ghost stories and related fiction.

Thursday 26 September 2013

If you don't already know Scarfolk...

Scarfolk is a town in North West England that did not progress beyond 1979. Instead, the entire decade of the 1970s loops ad infinitum. Here in Scarfolk, pagan rituals blend seamlessly with science; hauntology is a compulsory subject at school, and everyone must be in bed by 8pm because they are perpetually running a slight fever.
Scarfolk is the town I grew up in, because it is the town every English provincial of my generation grew up in. It consists partly of memories of crises, TV series about spooky events or sci-fi disasters, and a general sense of things not being quite right. 

Scarfolk blog has some wonderfully disturbing factual accounts of life in the borough. For instance:

In 1977 Scarfolk Clinic conducted sleep experiments on a local boy known only as 'Patient #249'. He suffered from severe nightmares and developed a rare condition known as 'manifest hypnagogia'. 
Symptoms include the physical manifestation of hallucinations that sufferers endure between sleep and waking states. For example, Patient #249 frequently awoke to find, sitting on the end of his bed, a syphilitic, deformed Victorian clown eating trifle and pig's liver pâté. At other times, a confused sewing machine salesman from the Midlands would appear. Patient #249's parents found this inconvenient.

Scarfolk Council not only has a blog (see above link) but also offers YouTube recordings. Here is one.

Monday 23 September 2013

The Ash Tree - Nunkie Films

This latest DVD from Nunkie is a particular treat for your humble editor, as 'The Ash-Tree' is one of my favourite M.R. James stories. For some reason the hyphen is missing from the titles of the Nunkie production, but otherwise the story is all present and correct. Indeed, on watching the film I was struck by all manner of ideas about the story. Why do so many farmers anxiously seek Mrs Mothersole's acquittal? When exactly did her 'anatomy' make its remarkable journey to the Hall? Do her young ones really 'suck up blood', as there's no obvious evidence in the story that they do anything other than poison their victims?

But that's not for here! No, let's consider the performance. And it's worth noting at once that Robert Lloyd Parry does perform stories. This is an adaptation of 'The Ash-Tree' - Parry is not simply presenting a reading in the presumed manner of the Provost, who used a handwritten script. Performance here means that Parry takes on the persona of a possible M.R. James, and offers a hybrid of the Victorian dramatic monologue with a modern theatrical one man show. The character tells the story from memory, occasionally referring to those old documents so central to much Jamesian pastiche, but which are in fact used quite sparingly - if at all - in the original tales.

Rob Lloyd Parry displays tremendous energy for a man largely confined, by the self-imposed rules of the game, to an easy chair. He also shows great skill in handling the very Jamesian transitions from humour or (apparently) scholarly digression to horror, and of course from past to present tense. He also does a masterly job of tweaking James's original text so as to make it slightly leaner, and more accessible. Thus he inserts a brief digression that explains the 'Sortes Biblicae'. It's so well done that the passage could indeed have been a footnote or digression by James.

Potential problems with plot and character are well-handled. 'The Ash-Tree' is an odd tale, when you think about it, full of ambiguities. And yet at the same time it is intensely visual and matter-of-fact when it comes to certain key moments. James is often portrayed as an author who dealt with sedentary academics yarning over port and pipe, but in fact his tales contain a fair bit of action. I ought to admit that, when it comes to the famous bedroom scene, I could have done without so animated an attempt to convey the sense of movement on and around poor Sir Richard Fell. It seemed to me a bit over the top. But that is a minor quibble, and I'm sure not everyone will agree. In general, the liveliness of the performance suits the material, which is after all an account of a very colourful period of history.

Another difficulty arises because the story has no protagonist - like Mr Dunning or Mr Wraxall - whose travails we can identify with. Instead we have a historical narrative pieced together by the author featuring a number of characters, none of whom is described in any great detail. In other Jamesian tales this is a problem - it drastically undermines 'The Residence at Whitminster'. But here the narrative drive is strong enough to hold things together on the page, and in his adaptation Parry manages to bring the various characters to life in a seemingly effortless way, so that only someone half asleep from heavy port intake would fail to grasp which Fell or Crome we are hearing from at any particular moment. And he also gives the Bishop of Kilmore a slightly more heroic role in the final showdown by the burning tree.

In conclusion, this is a thought-provoking, atmospheric film, confirming Robert Lloyd Parry as M.R. James's unofficial ambassador to the great British public. Order now - makes an ideal Christmas gift for those difficult aunties! Unless, of course, auntie is an arachnophobe.

Sunday 22 September 2013

'The Innocents' discussed

Radio 3 has been running a series of shows about movie soundtracks, mostly focusing on film scores. But here, in the series Night Waves, you can hear a more general discussion of The Innocents, a classic film adaptation of Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw'. Among the guests on the panel are Christopher Frayling, Jeremy Dyson, and Peter Wyngarde. The latter reveals that director Jack Clayton turned down two more famous actors before giving him the role of Quint. Listen and find out who those stars were...

Meanwhile, here's a sample o' the film.

Friday 20 September 2013

The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark - New Book!

Well. the shops are filling up with selection boxes and cards featuring improbably well-fed robins. So we know what's bearing down on us like a tinselly Juggernaut of consumerism. Fortunately some people have good ideas for Christmas prezzies (though booze is always acceptable, hint hint). Those sons of fun at Spectral Press, for instance, are offering this. A hefty collector's item, indeed.

Introduction by TONY EARNSHAWSeven short stories by M. R. JAMES: The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, A Warning to the Curious, The Ash Tree, Lost Hearts, Casting the Runes, Count Magnus 
Exclusive new introductions to each story by LAWRENCE GORDON CLARK 
Count Magnus teleplay by BASIL COPPER 
Lost Hearts short stage play by LAWRENCE GORDON CLARK 
It will be available in three editions: LIMITED SIGNED SLIPCASED HARDBACK (£75 – 50 only), LIMITED UNSIGNED HARDBACK (£35 – 100 only) and UNLIMITED PAPERBACK (£20). Postage will be extra. Only the highest production values will go into the making of this book— there will be NO eBook of this as we think that only physical books will work best for the nature of the material.This will be a definitive volume – the last word on Lawrence Gordon Clark’s career in ground-breaking supernatural television.

Thursday 19 September 2013

Ghostly Thrillers

The Messengers is a neatly-crafted haunted house tale that comes together at the end (with a nod to Hitchcock). By 'comes together' I mean that the actual 'metabolism' of the haunting is made sense of by a twist that reveals the truth behind the incident that created the ghosts. As you can imagine, it's not nice.

Without the ghosts, the story could have been a psychological thriller by - say - Ruth Rendell. The plot is essentially a murder mystery which in the film is solved by supernatural means. But are all successful supernatural stories necessarily built around the armature of a thriller plot? As a non-expert I'm feeling my way here, but I've always felt a traditional thriller needs a few things.

1. Something happens - something bad. This is usually at least one murder.
2. Something is concealed about the something that happens. It must be concealed from a key character or characters, and of course from the reader/viewer.
3. Clues must be provided as to the truth of the situation.
4. Some kind of detective work - whether it be professional or haphazardly amateur - is involved.
5. A revelation must occur, and the murderer is often willing to kill to stop the truth coming to light.

Well, like I said I'm no expert. But it's obvious that this set of ingredients do occur in a lot of ghost stories. M.R. James' 'Lost Hearts' is rock-solid in terms of offering a murderer, an amateur detective (who happens to be a curious small boy), and a revelation of the truth (by supernatural intervention). However, the one problem with point 5. is that you can't kill someone who's already dead. A murderer whose fell deeds are being exposed by his victims is on a bit of a loser, when you think about it. The ghosts only need to get 'lucky' once.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

'The Final Girls'

So, a planned American TV series is apparently 'high-profile horror' and will star 'scream queen' Jamie Lee Curtis. According to this report:
THE FINAL GIRLS will revolve around a group of teenage girls who, having survived their own personal horror stories and demons, are brought together by Curtis’ mysterious older woman. Here they share their experiences and struggles that may come to be more than meets the eye.
Hmm. Since the show is in development we can't expect much more detail. But it sounds vaguely promising.

Sunday 15 September 2013

Building a Spooky Library - Famous Names

It's a common mistake to see the ghost story as a thing apart; a sub-genre produced by specialist authors who wrote nothing else. Yet many ghost stories are written by authors who produce a great deal of non-supernatural fiction. Obvious examples include E.F. Benson, L.P. Hartley, Robert Westall, and - going back to Victorian Gothic - Sheridan Le Fanu. So where does our hypothetical spooky library end and collections of 'literary' short stories begin? Well, there's a very blurred line between the two, and some authors sit right on that indeterminate border.

Kipling is an obvious example. He wrote so many short stories that it would be surprising if he hadn't tackled the supernatural, and in fact many of his tales deal with ghostly or at least weird themes. Kipling is also a far stranger and more interesting author than many realise. Neil Gaiman - who wrote the introduction to a collection of RK's fantasy and horror tales - was criticised by some for liking a 'fascist'. While Kipling was arguably racist he was certainly not the narrow-minded little Englander many believe, and in his stories it is the arrogant Western male who often comes off worst because he is narrow-minded, dishonest, or just plain stupid.

A personal favourite of mine is 'Bubbling Well Road', a sparse tale of the unexplained. 'The Phantom Rickshaw' offers a fairly conventional haunting, albeit with strong circumstantial touches that give it a distinctive flavour. 'The Mark of the Beast' is often cited as a werewolf story, though it is arguably about demonic possession. (It is also brutally straightforward in its depiction of British rule in India.) 'At the End of the Passage' is a very weird tale about a man haunted by a terrifying dream-vision, while 'They' is a powerful variation on the haunted house theme.

A very different author, but again one who often ventured into ghostly territory, is Elizabeth Bowen. She achieved lasting acclaim as a novelist with a knack for dissecting the dark, unpleasant core of genteel family life in the early 20th century. But her short stories have been widely reprinted and at least one - 'The Demon Lover' - was filmed for television in the series Shades of Darkness. The same can be said for L.P. Hartley, whose novel The Go-Between remains his major literary accomplishment. But he produced so many stories of the macabre and uncanny that they have been collected more than once in quite substantial volumes. In both cases I think, for the uninitiated, that a paperback of selected stories is a reasonable start. There are fancier volumes for the enthusiastic, or just plain rich.

There are many other writers whose claim to fame lies in the mainstream, but whose supernatural fiction is well worth seeking out. And sometimes the most unlikely people can pull it off. Gerald Durrell's My Family and Other Animals is a delight, but his strange story 'The Entrance' is a classic of low-key Gothic. It first appeared in the collection The Picnic and Suchlike Pandemonium. F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age seems far removed from the supernatural, but his 'A Short Trip Home' is another a much-anthologised ghost story, and it works well.

Going further back, we have Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Mrs Gaskell, Thomas Hardy... When it comes to the Victorians it's not easy to find one who didn't write ghost stories while producing a great deal of non-spooky fiction. This is, in some ways, problematic, as the inclusion of 19th century ghost stories in most hefty anthologies is surely down to two factors - they're out of copyright and the authors are famous. If someone hasn't already done it, I dub this 'Signalman Syndrome'. (Not that 'The Signalman' is a bad story, but it crops up so often that some ghost story aficionados are heartily sick of seeing it listed on yet another contents page. It is, after all, taking the place of a different story - one that I have probably not read a dozen times.)

What of the present day, you ask? I don't know, to be honest. I am woefully out of touch with the contemporary literary scene and am unsure if this is bad thing. Perhaps you, gentle reader, could suggest authors who - while best known for mainstream fiction - have produced good ghost stories fairly recently? 

Wednesday 11 September 2013

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Submissions v. Subscriptions

So far this month people wanting me to publish their stories in ST outnumber those willing to renew/buy a subscription to the magazine by approximately 4:1. This is, I suspect, the reason why there are very few people out there willing to edit small circulation magazines. Pity.

Monday 9 September 2013

'The Tractate Middoth' on TV - update

The BBC Media Centre has a detailed press release about the cast of the Gatiss-helmed adaptation of  the M.R. James story, due to be broadcast on BBC 2 this Christmas.

Sacha Dhawan (Last Tango In Halifax, Being Human; The History Boys), John Castle (I, Claudius), Louise Jameson (Doctor Who, Doc Martin) and Una Stubbs (Sherlock, Til Death Do Us Part) will star in The Tractate Middoth, a brand new drama for BBC Two this Christmas.

They will be joined in the cast by David Ryall (The Village); Eleanor Bron (Bedazzled, Women In Love, Absolutely Fabulous); Nick Burns (Nathan Barley) and Roy Barraclough (Coronation Street). 
Written and directed by Mark Gatiss - his directorial debut - this new half-hour drama is a chilling adaptation of MR James's short story and will see a return of the cherished ghost story to BBC Two at Christmas.

Sunday 8 September 2013

Building a Spooky Library - Robert Aickman

See this book? It is, for my money, a Litmus test of literary tastes. If you don't like the stories in Cold Hand in Mine, you should probably give up on Robert Aickman. It's very unlikely that you will enjoy anything else he wrote.

I first came across this collection in the Robinson paperback edition, which I borrowed from the library. I was only vaguely aware of Aickman - at that time (the late Seventies) I was an avid science-fiction reader who was vaguely 'getting into horror'. I had yet to read M.R. James or discover the tradition of the literary ghost story. Machen and Blackwood were known to me only as people mentioned by Lovecraft in his famous essay, 'Supernatural Horror in Literature'. So I was in the odd position of coming to Aickman fresh, so to speak, with virtually no knowledge of the genre.

I was baffled and intrigued by the stories in CHIM. The first story, 'The Swords', is a tale of sexual awakening gone seriously wrong, or so I thought. The setting of post-war (or perhaps pre-war) Britain, with its shabbiness, unfriendliness and general air of tat made me oddly cheerful. Even living in the Seventies was better than this! And the story's shocking climax, followed by a menacing coda, were truly impressive.

633331Other first-rate stories here include 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal', 'The Hospice', 'The Same Dog', and 'The Clock Watcher'. All have the authentic nightmarish quality that I came to associate with Aickman - incomprehensible things described in rather cool prose. It was only later that I discovered his penchant for exorcising bad dreams by crafting them into stories. This made perfect sense in retrospect.

For some, the refusal to conform to traditional plot logic must make such stories unbearable, rather like being told a series of jokes you don't 'get'. And some of Aickman's stories simply don't work that well. But I think that, calculating his hit/miss ratio, he was as least as successful as any of the more readily comprehensible greats in the genre.

And not all of his stories resist interpretation - 'Ringing the Changes' is quite straightforward about what's happening and (more or less) why. Just as some dreams make more sense than others, so some of Aickman's strange tales are less baffling than, say, 'Two Doctors' by M.R. James. And there is for some a genuine pleasure in reading good writing regardless of formal conventions like twist, pay-off, plot logic etc. Indeed, some scientists think reading a story that doesn't follow conventional storytelling conventions might be good for the brain.

He was right to describe his fiction as strange stories. He was that supposedly un-English thing, a visionary, and when an English writer is a visionary he simply can't be kept in any prefabricated genre box. I defy the average horror fan to read 'The Stains', 'Ravissante', 'Bind Your Hair', 'The School Friend', or 'Ringing the Changes' and not find them disturbing. But Aickman wasn't simply a horror writer, as stories like 'The View' and 'The Houses of the Russians' make clear.

357728If you decide that you do like Aickman, you are arguably spoiled for choice. If you want excellent editions that will last a lifetime, Tartarus Press is publishing all his original collections. You could also plump for the two-volume Collected Stories from Tartarus. This is undoubtedly the high road for the bibliophile, but also the pricey one. For a reader who simply want to put Aickman on the shelf and in perspective, cheaper book club editions or paperbacks might make more sense. Painted Devils, The Wine Dark Sea, and The Unsettled Dust are all excellent, as of course is Cold Hand in Mine.

Opinions on Aickman are many and varied, but he was an immensely influential writer and editor. In his latter capacity he must have influenced at least one generation of readers, and many authors. Like all editors he was idiosyncratic, but the Fontana Great Ghost Stories paperbacks certainly represent a major achievement in the post-war genre. You can find a good discussion of their contents here.

Saturday 7 September 2013

The Hunger (1997-2000)

Created by Jeff Fazio and produced by Tony and Ridley Scott, this Canadian-British series ran for two seasons and offered viewers short (about 26 minutes) episodes based on stories by some well-known writers. Indeed, the first episode is 'The Swords', based on Robert Aickman's story, of which more later...

The central conceit of the show is that each story concerns an overwhelming hunger for something, whether it be money, power, life, sex... Sex crops up a lot, in fact. The format is lifted from Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Terence Stamp plays the Host, an eccentric who delivers a (supposedly) profound or witty introduction to the drama, then rounds things off with an afterword. This eats into the already short run time. A strong idea sometimes deserves to be developed for longer than twenty minutes. Thus Lisa Tuttle's 'The Replacement' ends so abruptly it falls flat on its face, spoiling a clever alien invasion scenario.

Given those caveats, let's consider the episodes with supernatural themes. Sadly for us Aickmanites, 'The Swords' is a shambles. Instead of the shocking climax and menacing coda of the original, this version has the callow youth falling in love with the much-punctured sideshow performer. Not even the lovely Amanda Ryan plus a Timothy Spall cameo can save it.

Thursday 5 September 2013

Chico Kidd Interviewed

Over at Alchemy Press there's an interview with the esteemed Chico (A.F.) Kidd, author of many a ghost story, quite a few novels, and creator of the Captain da Silva universe. Some interesting insights into her world, and the kind of things she likes. It seems we have fairly similar tastes.

I like stories which mingle genres, such as SF, mysteries, fantasy. I’m also a fan of space opera, urban fantasy, hard-boiled ’tecs and some heroic fantasy. What attracts me to read and to write is unlimited imagination, whether in subject or plot.

Tuesday 3 September 2013

A Reader/Writer Writes

Louis Marvick, whose stories have appeared in many distinguished publications (and ST!) sent me an email about the post 'The 14 Scariest Ghost Stories?'

I enjoy this sort of thing very much. My brother and I used to make up lists of Top Ten Conductors, Top Ten Violinists , etc. and argue about them. It’s silly, as you say, but fun. I agree that 13 Good Ghost Stories is a better title than 13 [Any Superlative], because the limiting number is bound to exclude lots of first-rate things. How about a new title: 13 Little-known , First-rate Ghost Stories? My list would include: 
The Cyclops Juju, Shamus Frazer (or the one about Guy Fawkes Day)
The Library Window, Mrs Oliphant
Pargiton and Harby, Desmond MacCarthy
The Travelling Grave, L. P. Hartley
The Green Bottle, Bernard Capes (the best of all, I think)
A Haunted House, Algernon Blackwood
Mr Justice Harbottle, Sheridan LeFanu
PS I’m glad to see Pollock and the Porroh Man and Thurnley Abbey on your list. For Burrage, I prefer A Night in the Wax Museum, though it’s not a ghost story.
I have to add Stevenson's The Body Snatcher, though it only turns supernatural at the very end. 
Louis Marvick

Monday 2 September 2013

Le Monstre!

Open to Submissions!

Yes, for the rest of the year - or until I get really fed up - ST is open to submissions for next year's issues. I'm looking for Word or RTF files sent via email. I'm not wildly fussy about formats and such. See the Guidelines page (click on the link above) for details.

Now, is your story the kind of thing I'm looking for? Well, a PDF of the magazine is very cheap indeed - go here to grab the latest issue. Or you could listen to me read a story from a recent issue.

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 ...