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.

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...