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.

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...