Wednesday 31 December 2014

2015 - anniversaries and things

The coming year sees quite a few anniversaries of significance to lovers of the ghostly, the eerie, and the downright odd. Here are a few:

A.C (1862-1925) and E.F. Benson (1967-40) - Authors of numerous ghost stories.

D.K. Broster (1877-1950) - Couching at the Door, a Jamesian collection

Margaret Brundage (1900-76) - Noted horror/fantasy artist, esp. for Weird Tales

John Buchan (1875-1940) - 'The Grove of Ashtaroth', 'The Wind in the Portico', and others

Angela Carter (1940-92) - 'The Company of Wolves', 'The Lady of the House of Love', and others

Tuesday 30 December 2014

Howie & Bob - Parallel Lives?

H.P. Lovecraft and Robert Aickman - those two crazy guys are the chalk and cheese of horror, though which is which I obviously can't say. If works by both appear in the same anthology quite a few readers are bound to be seriously annoyed. I enjoy reading both, but I suspect I'm in a minority. Aickman certainly didn't rate his American predecessor, declaring that 'The Music of Erich Zann' was the only Lovecraft tale he liked. And yet both are revered authors whose reputations have been maintained not by mainstream critics, still less by 'the book buying public', but by generations of fans. Both were well-read men who set out to institute a kind of 'reform' of the horror story (or weird tale, if you like). Let's consider some other similarities.

1. Childhood

Both men were only children. Lovecraft was born in the USA in 1890, Aickman in England in 1914. That's a gap of about one generation, with the North Atlantic thrown in. But look closer and there are striking parallels. Both had troubled and troublesome fathers. Lovecraft's dad famously died in an asylum after being driven mad by what is assumed to be syphilis. He was raised by his mother and his aunts.

Aickman's father was much older than his mother, so much so that the poor woman nearly fainted from shock when - at the wedding - she saw for the first time her husband's date of birth. In his autobiography The Attempted Rescue Aickman recalls his father as domineering, financially incompetent, and possibly predatory towards his son.

Monday 29 December 2014

A Miscellany o' Stuff

In one of James Thurber's essays he remarks on losing his sight and having nurses read the newspapers to him. At one point a nurse comments that in the review section there are lots of books about Mussolini. Turns out it was 'Miscellany'. End of amusing aside. Start of actual blog bit.

I've been away over the Christmas period, doing Family Life. I actually enjoyed it, as it meant eating too much and then lying around reading books for the want of anything else to do (you'll have gathered that my folks are not online). In my old bedroom I found quite a few volumes I hadn't perused for many a year. Some were volumes of period ghost stories, which explains that last sentence. But I also enjoyed re-reading this:

If you know Tsutsui (like I know Tsutsui) you will be aware of his strange and often sexually explicit work. Salmonella Men on Planet Porno is one of his best-known story collections. The title story was dramatised rather well for a Radio 3 sf season a while back. He also wrote Paprika, the animated film of which is splendid - well worth a watch. 

What the Maid Saw - sometimes the title is translated simply as The Maid - is an early book. My American edition is dated 1990, and it was apparently the first of the author's books to be translated. It is a remarkably direct and powerful work, not least because it breathes new life into one of the most hackneyed ideas in pulp fiction - psi powers, or telepathy, or whatever you call it. Writing with great clarity and economy, Tsutsui brings complete conviction to an idea that's often been botched.

The heroine (?) is Nanase Hite, called Nana for short, a teenage girl who can read minds. Quite sensibly she hides her power, fearing abduction and experimentation. To keep a low profile she shuns higher education and instead seeks work as a housemaid. Unfortunately Nana's ability to mind read leads her into trouble as every family she encounters has its secrets, deceits, and concealed fault lines. 

One large family is so filthy that the stink of their laundry is almost unbearable, but Nana realises they are so used to it they have no idea that they smell. (Very Japanese, this, as having a 'dirty kitchen' means unmarriageable daughters.) In another family the newly-redundant patriarch starts to fantasise about raping the maid to re-affirm his masculinity. 

Needless to say, there is a lot sexual shenanigans, but Tsutsui is (for me) a moral writer - there is lip-smacking disapproval here, merely an acknowledgement that sex is part of normal life. And book concludes not with a bang but a scream of rage and terror, as Tsutsui rings the changes on a very old horror trope - one that Poe fans, in particular, will appreciate. I'd recommend this book for an afternoon's read. It's different, absorbing, and oddly uplifting. 

Elsewhere in the realms of the supernatural, some heavyweight opinions have been expressed. Here is a long and thoughtful review of the latest annotated edition of Lovecraft's fiction, A sample:

The effectiveness of Lovecraft’s fiction has little to do with its purely literary qualities, which are minimal (Michel Houellebecq claimed that Lovecraft’s work was “not really literary”), but with another feature that’s harder to pinpoint: the ways it casts a spell. Fiction like Lovecraft’s can be brutally hypnotic; the young reader, intellectually undefended and easily shaken, enters the writer’s fear-drenched universe and can’t easily get out of it. The mood of unappeasable, apocalyptic menace gradually overcomes those who are unprepared for it. Though sometimes stagy, the intensity in Lovecraft’s stories does not seem fake. Closing the book, the initiate tries to find other readers who were similarly spellbound. A cult is formed, as if to combat post-traumatic stress. From generation to generation the cult grows.

Quite. I enjoy Lovecraft, but came to his work in my late teens (or early twenties - I can't recall). The impact was somewhat less that it seems to have been on several of the big names in horror, who encountered HPL at more impressionable ages.

Here's another extract from a thoughtful piece, this time one that takes in the ghost story tradition and gives a well-deserved pat on the back (or spine?) to Tartarus Press for reviving interest in Aickman and others. 
Tartarus Press, the small imprint run from the Yorkshire Dales by the writers Ray Russell and Rosalie Parker, is semi-legendary among spook enthusiasts for its fine editions of supernatural and horror fiction. Tartarus was flying the Aickman flag long before Faber experienced its own revival of interest, and still has stunning hardbacks of his work available for sale, as well as work by Arthur Machen, L P Hartley, Lafcadio Hearn and other luminaries of the tradition.
Nice to see Andrew Hurley's debut novel The Loney get a mention amid the famous names. I don't know if, as the author claims, the ghost story is enjoying a renaissance. I'd like to believe it. But I'd also like to believe that the ghost story is evolving and changing, rather like ectoplasm at a Victorian seance, but without the tendency to turn into something fixed and dull - a vision of Uncle Fred in an unconvincing Elysium. 

Tuesday 23 December 2014

Footprints in the snow

Yuletide greetings from ST cover artist Sam Dawson. Hope you get a lot of interesting visitors!

Monday 22 December 2014

Daydreams and Nightmares

It's too late to order this for Christmas, but worth remembering if you're reluctant to tackle the January sales.

What on earth am I on about? Why, only the first collection of supernatural fiction to come with an introduction by me, your humble ST editor. Oh yes. I went there.

Not sure what the form is re: reviewing books by friends that you've introduced. Suffice to say, this is the genuine article.

The book in question is Daydreams and Nightmares by Katherine Haynes. It is published by Phantasm Press, which consists, in part, of legendary editor Richard Dalby. A rather nifty paperback, the collection only costs £7.50, for which you get seven tales that I describe as.... Hang on a mo, I'll check. Ah yes, these stories are 'distinguished by well-crafted prose, economical characterisation, and efficient plotting'. I also opine that Kate 'offers keen insights into our sometimes petty human concerns, and contrasts them with the threat or, occasionally, the promise of intervention by phenomena beyond our ken and control'.

The contents are:

'The People Collector'
'A Good Try'
'Mother's Own Ghost Story'
'The Cupped Hands'
'The Lure of the Copse'
'The Butcher, the Baker, the Candlestick Maker'

Good readin', right here folks.

Sunday 21 December 2014

Some Christmas Viewing and/or Listening

I'll be dashing hither and yon, and I daresay you will be too - but there may be times during the Christmas and New Year season that you will have an hour or so to kick back, relax, and enjoy some entertainment.

I've been scouring YouTube recently for ghost stories and related matters. Here are a few suggestions (leaving aside ST's own YT channel, of course) for Yuletide enjoyment of a weird, spooky, or otherwise dark nature:

First, a BBC TV drama that suffers from ropey visuals and sound. There's also a very intrusive time code thingy. But it's still a cracker. Wouldn't you like to see Richard E. Grant as Sherlock Holmes and Frank Finlay as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Well, here they are:

Next, an old favourite. I've posted it before, but it's about as seasonal as you can get. 'The Phantom Coach', an animated adaptation of the story by Amelia B. Edwards.

If you want to hear something strange in the way of music, the following link was sent to me by ST regular Jane Jakeman. It's of modern musicians playing oliphants - mediaeval ivory horns, as used by huntsmen, spectral or otherwise. False dreams came out of the ivory gate, remember. Don't have nightmares. Oh, and if you play all four tracks at once it is extra weird.

Now my old friend, radio drama. Not supernatural, but a classic mystery of the sea, the tale of the Mary Celeste has prompted much theorising (by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, among others). In this play you get the facts of the case, and the most likely explanation of the disappearance of the captain, his family, and the crew of a seaworthy ship in good weather.

Next, a weird Fortean drama by eccentric actor Ken Campbell, who also appears in it. I suspect the central premise comes from a story by Arthur C. Clarke. Anyway, back to the Eighties for full-on paranoia and a very literal ghost in the machine.

Finally, if you love spaghetti like I love spaghetti, you will endure the cheesy old commercials while you enjoy this Seventies radio adaptation of an American Gothic romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne. CBS Radio Mystery Theatre attempted to review the old radio drama format, with some success. This is over-the-top stuff, and all the more enjoyable for it.

Well done, Jane!

Next year's Best British Horror anthology from Salt Publishing will include 'Quarry Hogs' by Jane Jakeman, which first appeared in issue 27. And yes, Ellen Datlow this year published Jane's story 'Majorlena', which appeared in issue 24.

BBH 2015 editor Johnny Mains has published the provisional list of contents, which is as follows:

SHADDERTOWN - Conrad Williams
EASTMOUTH – Alison Moore
LEARNING THE LANGUAGE – John Llewellyn Probert
REUNION – Rebecca LLoyd
IN THE YEAR OF OMENS – Helen Marshall
ON ILKLEY MOORE – Alison Littlewood
PRIVATE AMBULANCE – Simon Kurt Unsworth
THE SLISTA– Stephen Laws

Sunday 14 December 2014


Arthur Machen, a remarkable writer I don't mention often enough, was one of the greatest exponents of the weird tale in the early 20th century. Now a major Machen collection is in peril from library cuts! Machen enthusiast Mark Valentine sends the following:
The public library at Newport, Gwent, houses a splendid Arthur Machen collection, including rare items, some donated over the years by his admirers, friends and family. It is the best public collection of his work in the UK, and an argument can be made for its international significance. The library is now under threat of closure. The local council are considering a plan to replace it with much smaller local hubs. 
The Friends of Arthur Machen are joining those concerned by the closure. Please consider adding your voice to those urging the local council to protect the library and collection. A wide response may help them rethink plans or at least safeguard the collection. 
Full details, including where to write to add your views, are on the Wormwoodiana blog:"


Friday 12 December 2014

Some Classic Ghost Stories for Christmas

Author Helen Grant has published a list of ten classic ghost stories for Christmas. It is also, as you'd expect from a very accomplished writer of spooky fiction, an excellent introduction to the ghost story for anyone who'd like to give it a go. In fact, of the ten stories listed, only one - 'The Accident' by Ann Bridge - is unfamiliar to me.

But there are so many good stories, so many brilliant authors! So I thought I'd list ten ghost stories by other writers, just to demonstrate what a wonderful range of material is out there. Like Helen, I'm stretching the definition of 'ghost story' to mean 'tale of the supernatural'. (She lists 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book' and Conan Doyle's 'Lot No. 249', neither of which has a ghost. Marghanita Laski's 'The Tower' seems debatable as well.)

Right, here goes...

1. 'Blackham's Wimpey' by Robert Westall (From Break of Dark)

A superb example of the historical ghost story, this the tale of a haunted Wellington bomber and the way a brave Irish pilot manages to exorcise its terrors. Westall evokes the ambience of a World War 2 RAF base and the differences in attitude between Blackham, a bloody-minded commander, and more humane officers. The scene when the crucial air-battle occurs over Germany is extraordinary in its vividness, as is the story's finale.

2. 'Vlasto's Doll' by Margery Lawrence (From Nights of the Round Table)

One of the few convinced Spiritualists to write really good supernatural fiction, Lawrence produced several first-rate collections. Nights of the Round Table, as the title suggests, concerns a story-telling club. Every month a member gives his account of a strange occurrence. 'Vlasto's Doll' is arguably the oddest. The central idea may not be original, but the execution - in both senses of the term - is weird and disturbing enough for anyone. And big dolls are just creepy. Really.

3. 'Minuke' by Nigel Kneale (From Tomato Cain & Other Stories, also collected in The Eleventh Pan Book of Horror Stories)

If you've seen Kneale's TV drama The Stone Tape you will readily grasp the idea of a haunted house as a place of ancient evil. 'Minuke', written before the author moved into broadcasting, is a very effective and atmospheric tale, with a touch of the author's macabre humour. I probably over-use the term nightmarish, but it's certainly applicable in this case. The whole collection is worth seeking out. 

4. 'The Moonlit Road' by Ambrose Bierce 

Often collected but not readily explained, this is one of the few ghost stories that breaks a cardinal rule of genre and gets away with it. What really happened in an isolated house when a loving wife and mother was murdered, apparently by a random intruder? A study in unhappiness and regret, it's a sensitive and intelligent story, like many of Bierce's best. A splendid, if rather oddly shaped, piece of American Gothic. 

5. 'The Door in the Wall' by H.G. Wells

One of the few great supernatural tales that doesn't set out to scare you, Wells' story of a man haunted by a childhood vision of beauty and kindness is a little masterpiece. The definitive tale of a 'land of lost content', it can be interpreted as a yearning for Utopia, or a regretful rejection of Utopianism. However you read it, though, it showcases the talents of a great - and still under-appreciated - English writer.

6. 'Ancient Sorceries' by Algernon Blackwood (From John Silence: Physician Extraordinary, and many anthologies)

Ghosts! Witches! Reincarnation! Cats! Sexy-sexy, ooh la la (within established Edwardian fictional limits)! Yes, it's all here in a tale of a sleepy French town whose inhabitants have markedly feline characteristics. An Englishman who gets off his train on an impulse and spends a few days among the natives finds he has more in common with them than he could have imagined. Vintage stuff, not least because Blackwood seems a bit ambiguous about witchcraft. 

7. 'Luella Miller' by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

She was a very prolific author of short stories, many of them spooky, and all set in the small-town or rural New England she knew so well. She was very good on dialogue and telling imagery. 'Luella Miller' is a classic and rather early example of a sub-genre that has since been very popular. I'll say no more, except that Luella is someone who needs a lot of help, and always seems to find a likely helper. A gentler story than some, but still a weird one.

8. 'All Hallows' by Walter de la Mare

Not an easy writer to modern sensibilities, de la Mare was a poet whose stories are elusive and often very strange. 'All Hallows' is at least comprehensible. A cathedral standing alone by the sea is beset by demonic forces in a surprising way. A story of powerful scenes that might best be enjoyed as symphonic 'movements', this one will either stay with you forever or leave you cold. If you want the best modern edition of de la Mare's weird fiction, I'd recommend the Tartarus Press volume

9. 'Petey' by T.E.D. Klein (in Dark Gods)

Klein writes very little, but the four novellas in Dark Gods are among the best horror stories of the late 20th century. Of them, 'Petey' is almost a traditional ghostly tale; a group of wealthy, self-indulgent people who gather at a house in the wilds. The house was essentially stolen (albeit legally) from its rightful owner by their host. Evidence of strange beliefs and experiments emerge during the course of the house warming party...

10. 'A Tress of Hair' by Guy de Maupassant (aka 'The Head of Hair')

Maupassant is well worth exploring, as he was a master of the short story and wrote a lot of truly weird tales. Here, an apparently stable and single man collects antique furniture. He discovers a secret panel in a Venetian piece (type never specified) of the 17th century. Inside is 'an immense coil of fair hair, almost red, which must have been cut off close to the head, tied with a golden cord'. The hair's long-dead owner soon manifests herself. The tale of a sensuous ghost, or an account of obsession leading to madness? You decide. 

Tuesday 9 December 2014

Sunday 7 December 2014

Scarborough Fair: Remember Me (BBC1)

Well, there it goes, the best supernatural drama on British television for quite a while. No spoilers here. Suffice to say that a story that would have worked on the page as a novella proved strong enough to sustain three hour-long episodes. Everyone will have their own opinion about whether it was padded and by how much. For me each ep seemed to go rather quickly, and all worked rather well.

I could witter on at length about everything that went on. Suffice to say that the Gothic tradition is alive and well when characters have names like Ward, Fairholme, and Parfitt. What might be termed Imperial Gothic, the weird tradition of Buchan, Haggard, and Kipling, was more than hinted at. I liked the way a very English ghost story also had global reach, so to speak.

Gwyneth Hughes' scripts for Remember Me can be downloaded at the link. I think, in terms of intelligence and subtlety, they are as good as any modern ghostly fiction. I look forward to even greater things from her.

The uncredited star of the series was of course the landscape and seascape of Yorkshire, Locations around Huddersfield can be seen here. Interactive map, chuffin' 'eck.

Thursday 4 December 2014

Anne Billson nails it

From the Daily Telegraph comes what I must agree is bad news: Universal is 'reimagining' its classic monsters. In an article that I'd urge you to read, Anne Billson points out that this is almost certain to produce some crappy films that can't hold a candle to the horror classics. A few quotes:
Do you remember Universal's post-Millennium monster movies? Do you remember The Mummy and its increasingly naff sequels? How about Van Helsing, Dracula Untold or The Wolfman – which even Universal's president admitted was "one of the worst movies we made". For me, though, the decisive scuppering factor was Benicio Del Toro's uncanny resemblance to Frankie Howerd.
Another problem is that upmarket film-makers (...) just don't "get" horror,(...). Take the late Mike Nichols, who saw Wolf as "transcending the horror genre" and apparently imagined, rather endearingly, that he was the first director ever to portray the wolfman as a metaphor for modern masculinity and the beast within. Or Robert De Niro, agreeing to play the creature in Kenneth Branagh's Frankenstein, "because I knew that Ken was going to make more than just another horror film, that he was going to give it a deeper meaning." You idiots! The "deeper meaning" is already there. It always has been.
Perhaps the new Universal franchise will give us thrill-a-minute fun-rides, souped-up Monster Squads for our times, in which case hurrah for them, and for us. But one thing they won't be is proper monster movies.
I have nothing to add to that. Again, I urge you to read the piece. So much good horror is made by small, unflashy film-makers with limited resources. There is really no need for big-budget stuff, as all the things that require a big budget take us away from the horror (or supernatural) genre and into the world of franchising. But since 'reimagining' is all about grabbing cash with both hands, I suppose we'll be getting Wolfman action figures and a spin-off Frankenstein game, whether we like it or not.

Vote, vote, vote!

Remember, readers of ST, you can vote for your favourite story in the current or last issue - the winner off the reader poll will win the princely sum of twenty-five quid. Okay, it's not much, but it's a nice accolade for an author to be told people really like their work. Remember, writers are sensitive souls. They need encouragement. So vote for you favourite story in issue 28, or indeed in issue 27, as I'll be announcing the latter winner in the next issue.

And remember, while we're about it, to have a think about all the ghostly fiction you've read this year. 2015 will see the first Ghost Story Awards, and Mark Valentine wants you to let him know which stories and collections most impressed you in 2014. Details at the link.

Tuesday 2 December 2014

'She wants him back' - Remember Me (BBC 1)

Jodie Comer, Mark Addy and Michael Palin star in this spooky drama

After enjoying the first episode to a degree that was almost unseemly, I was a little concerned that part 2 of this original, feature length ghost story would flag a bit. I don't think it did, though arguably it caught its breath. For those who've yet to see it, I can only keep recommending it. This is what I wrote about the first part.

In the second episode  - Spoiler Alert and all that the surprising truth about runaway oldie Tom Parfitt begins to emerge. And again I was impressed by how writer Gwyneth Hughes combines elements of the traditional British ghost story with modern Asian horror tropes. Thus the entity - her name is Isha, we discover - moves in a way familiar from The Ring and The Grudge. (And there's a bit of a play on geography, going on, as Isha is a ghost from southern Asia, not the region where modern horror film was recently reinvented.)

There's an interview with Gwyneth Hughes here, in which she casts some interesting light on her methods and ideas. Michael Palin signed up on the basis of the first episode - the only one she'd written at the time. That, I think, is proof of Mr Palin's canny Yorkshire judgement. He could see an opportunity to play a 'real' person who is, as we come to realise, not so much good or evil as desperate.

Among my favourite scenes in Episode 2: the nod to L.P Hartley in the bus scene; Mark Addy's decent, baffled detective opening letters from the Queen; the sad fate of the care home worker, found dead over waterlogged egg and chips; Hannah's mam - Julia Sawalha - starting to come to terms with her grief by putting on a pair of denim shorts; Hannah (Jodie Comer) and her brother playing on the deserted beach.

'Remember Me' is also notable for accepting that viewers can work stuff out for themselves. It's a ghost story, which means its a variation on a traditional idea. And guess what? At the heart of the mystery lies 'Scarborough Fair', a traditional folk song that, we are reminded, comes in many forms and so - like the ghostly genre - can never be wholly defined.

Then there are the characters' names. The detective, Rob Fairholme, has in fact a fragmented home, with what remains of his close family in the Antipodes. Hannah's surname, Ward, suggests her protective role towards little brother Sean (Jamie Rooney-West). And while we can see Tom Parfitt is far from perfect, to Isha he must be.

I have my own vague notions as to what must/will happen to bring the haunting to an end. But I suspect that Ms Hughes is ahead of me on this, and that something dramatically better than my own guesses will happen in part three. If Remember Me does nothing else, it's demonstrated that the feature length ghost story is perfectly do-able on television. Let us have more of this.

Saturday 29 November 2014

A Miles Malleson Moment

Anyone who loves old Hammer films as I do will be familiar not only with the big stars, but also the regulars of the supporting cast.

Among the latter was Miles Malleson, a stalwart of the theatre who became a familiar face in British films in the decades after WW2. He was often cast as comic relief in the role of butler, undertaker, petty bureaucrat etc. He certainly looked the part, as you can see.

Like Michael Ripper, Malleson is one of those actors I'm always glad to see, even (or especially) if the actual film isn't first rate.

And apparently he was just as amusing to work with as he was on screen, Here's a lovely clip of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee explaining why. And thanks to the Peter Cushing Appreciation Society for posting this on their Facebook page.

Books on Tyne

Yesterday afternoon I attended a rather spiffing event at Newcastle Central Library, as part of the Books on Tyne literary festival.

Genre expert and author Dr Gail-Nina Anderson delivered a brilliant talk on the Gothic, offering an overview of literature, movies, works of art, and the way high and low culture combined to produce a uniquely modern sensibility. Only she put it better - if you ever get the chance to hear her talk about anything, take it. Then Ray Russell of Tartarus Press talked about the world of book collecting, its pleasures and perils, and the rise and fall of the odd little bookshop. There was also a Q&A involving Ray, Gail, Rosalie Parker (the other half of Tartarus, so to speak), and local bibliophile Malcolm Henderson. It was one of those two hour sessions that could easily have lasted two days, such is the scope of things Gothicky, as Ray put it.

Coincidentally, on Friday morning I attended a funeral, which is I suppose the ideal precursor to considering all things Gothic. Do we deal with mortality by accepting it, ignoring it, ritualising it, disguising it? Arguably some horror fiction trivialises death by focusing on it as a minor plot device. And yet horror clearly offers comfort and reassurance, in its way, otherwise it wouldn't be popular. These and other thoughts are sloshing around in my head.


There's a little link to my YouTube channel over to the right, there. It's right there, there! I'm pointing at it! Anyway, if you click on it, it opens into a little window. My latest upload is a ghost story I wrote in the last century (gosh, that still looks weird when you type it).

See if you can guess which famous ghost story author I pastiched in 1989.

You don't need to guess, do you?

Anyway, if you're not familiar with YT, there are different playlists covering categories like TV and movies, Stories from Supernatural Tales, old radio shows, and so on. I've also 'liked' various videos, including trailers to some films that impressed me. This one, for instance, I'd recommend to lovers of slightly off-beat ghost story/horror films.

Monday 24 November 2014

'Now you can never take it back!' - Remember Me (BBC 1)

Well, here it is - the BBC's ghost story for Christmas, all three hours of it. And, like all things Yuletide, it's under way in November. A three-part modern ghost story set in Yorkshire, Remember Me certainly has the potential to be a classic, if the first episode is any indication. Written by Gwyneth Hughes and directed by Ashley Pearce, the first hour was almost a scene-by-scene lesson in how to put the ambiguity at the heart of a ghost story on screen. Indeed, this is one of the best examples of Gothic drama I've seen in a while, and there's not a castle or frilly white nightie in sight. Though of course, both can be found in Yorkshire...

Spoiler alert, and all that!

Monday 17 November 2014

Friends of the Dead - new from Sarob

Regular readers of Ghosts & Scholars and All Hallows magazine won't need to be told that James Doig is a consistently good author of supernatural tales. His stories fall into the M.R. James tradition, but certainly rise above pastiche. So it's good news that Robert Morgan of Sarob Press is releasing a splendid hardback collection of tales by James Doig, including one previously unpublished story. Here is the contents list from the Sarob blog.
Stories: “Malware*” “Wolferton Hall” “The Kindness of Strangers” “Mathrafal” “Threads” “The Wild Hunt” “The Land Where Fairies Linger*” “Out of the West” “The Dead Heart” “Friends of the Dead” 
*previously unpublished. With an introduction by the author.
The cover art by Paul Lowe - as you can see above - is typically evocative. If people will go rummaging about in old books and fiddling with historic churches, well...

You can find out more about James Doig at the Australian Horror Writers Association. Yes, he is Australian. No, there are no kangaroos in his work that I am aware of. You had to ask. Tsk.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Supernatural Tales 28 - now available!

Supernatural Tales 28
Cover art by Sam Dawson

Yes, let joy be unconfined, if only for a little while. The new issue of ST can now be purchased in print form, or as an ebook for Kindle (or things that run the Kindle app).

Print Version (site accepts PayPal)
PDF Version

Smashwords (all formats, accepts PayPal)

Kindle UK
Kindle US
Kindle Canada

(Pop over to the Buy Supernatural Tales! page for links to purchase back issues.)

Here's the contents list.

'Bright Hair About the Bone' by Jacob Felsen.

'Doorways' by William Wandless.

'Mr and Mrs Havisham' by Gillian Bennett.

'Look Both Ways' by Sam Dawson.

'A Name in the Dark' by Michael Chislett.

'Fiveplay' by E. Michael Lewis. 

'The Shrouder' by William I.I. Read

'Snowman, Frozen' by Tim Foley.

I've said it before, I know, but I think there's something for everyone here. There are ghosts, in the traditional sense, and there are less conventional revenants. There is at least one fallen angel, two or more demons (I can't really decide), witches, strange children, and an entity that crosses from the realm of the imagination to become all too real. There is love, lyricism and wonder amid the suspense, strangeness, and 'pleasing terror'. In other words, it's another issue of Supernatural Tales. Let it make of you what it will...

Tuesday 11 November 2014

'Untitled Ghost Story' by S.J. Moore

Note: this is a review of an ebook, which is available for Kindle here. It can also be found at Kobo and iTunes/Books.

The scene is the Ben Lomond - a pub in Jarrow, a former industrial town on the south bank of the Tyne. The time is just after closing. The characters are Gav, the assistant manager, and Steve, a postgraduate student working part-time as a barman. The plot ingredients are drink, drugs, class conflict, and strange phenomena rooted in local history and/or folklore. And, if you're not from the North East, you might struggle a bit with some of the terms. Hence this book's 'Glossary of dialect words, phonetic spellings, local usage and historical persons'. If you want to know about Jarrow, its Geordie inhabitants, or the ingredients of the wondrous cheese savoury sandwich filling, it's all there.

There's a venerable tradition of the vernacular ghost story - tales couched in non-standard English, if not always in a given dialect. There are obvious examples in Kipling, Buchan, and of course Le Fanu. But there is also a long-standing convention whereby upper- or middle-class authors tone down the language of the working class, often using it as comic relief - M.R. James is an obvious example. This is certainly not the case here. The first few pages are larded with language your auntie would not approve of, unless your auntie is a bit sweary of course.

For someone who - like me - grew up in the North East the language used here offers the pleasure of recognition, but some may find it hard to penetrate, at first. And the initial barrage of what some term effin' and jeffin' could be seen as a strategic error - after all, when people check out an ebook it's the first few pages they tend to look at. But it is justified because we see events from the perspective of Gav, to whom use of the F-word is as natural as breathing. Gav is not easy to like, but he has his moments of wit and insight. And, we come to realise, he's a man with problems above and beyond locking up the boozer.

Monday 10 November 2014

The Ghost Story Awards 2015


To vote, you must be a member of A Ghostly Company or a subscriber to the Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter or Supernatural Tales.

You may send your vote by email to; or by post to: Mark Valentine, Stable Cottage, Priest Bank Road, Kildwick, Keighley, Yorkshire, BD20 9BH. (The fifth character in the email address is a lower case L for Lima, not i or a number 1.)

Your vote must arrive by midnight on February 28th [2015].

You may vote for up to three ghost stories and up to three ghost story collections or anthologies. You do not have to put your votes in any order: they will be treated as of equal weight. You also do not have to give three titles in either category: you may if you prefer give only one or two.

Remember that the story or book must have been first published in English in print and paper format in 2014. The term “ghost story” will be interpreted broadly to refer to work about any supernatural entity and to allow for ambiguity.

You should head your email or letter GHOST STORY AWARDS and follow this format:

Your Name
State AGC/G&S/ST (to show which qualifies you to vote)

List (up to) three ghost stories: Title/Author/Publisher
List (up to) three ghost story collections or anthologies: Title/Author or Editor/Publisher

(Please do not include other correspondence, although of course this may be sent separately).

Saturday 8 November 2014

'Casting the Runes' at the Lit and Phil

Last night I had the pleasure of attending another performance by Robert Lloyd Parry of Nunkie Theatre fame, who has been visiting the Lit and Phil in Newcastle for a good few years now. (All credit to art historian, author, and all round genre expert Dr Gail-Nina Anderson for luring him up North in the first place.)

As I've stressed before, what Robert Lloyd Parry gives his audience is a performance based on his interpretation of the fiction of M.R. James, not a mere reading. In this latest touring show he offers one undisputed classic and one rather neglected tale - 'Casting the Runes' (1911) and 'The Residence at Whitminster' (1919).

'Casting the Runes' is arguably the best-know Jamesian ghost story - and there's no ghost in it. I don't think anyone in the very appreciative audience minded too much! As always, hearing a familiar tale 're-discovered' brought home how effective the central idea is, and the strength of individual scenes. But Parry's omission of some ingredients - notably the chirpy Cockney tram crew - helped focus the narrative on the true horror of Dunning's situation. There are still touches of humour, of course, but it is a dark tale and I think the performance rightly stressed this.

Similarly in 'The Residence at Whitminster' the core of the story is the cruel and ultimately self-destructive mischief of Lord Saul, and this provides the centre of gravity of the performance. As so often happens, James gives no clear reason for Saul's dabbling in the dark arts, so we are left to assume that he is a vain and foolish adolescent. I was surprised that this story was chosen, but it provided a very effective second half. It's a very visual tale and the historical details of Dr Ashton's world came across vividly. The things seen by Mary Oldys in the 'scrying glass', a pivotal scene, might well have haunted the dreams of some audience members.

One thing that struck me during the show is how effectively James takes us back to the world of childhood. Games, pranks, and persecution prevail, while quite arbitrary, mysterious rules always apply. A child's world is devoid of adult defences against chaos and fear - the law, faith, and rationality offer precarious refuge when we're young. Cross a line and you're 'It'.

And that's another great virtue of a Nunkie Theatre performance. Not only do you get an entertaining evening in the ghostly (and scholarly) world of M.R. James, you find yourself re-assessing familiar stories in the light of Robert Lloyd Parry's winning adaptations.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Best Horror of the Year Vol. 6 - in which a Small Magazine is Well Represented

Supernatural Tales #24

Over on the blog of Ellen Datlow there is a list of the contents of her famed anthology, and in it we find 'Majorlena' by Jane Jakeman, which appeared in ST#24. Jane's story, set in the last Iraq war, is certainly not your standard British ghost story, but the author's skill and knowledge shine through, as does her grasp of Middle Eastern myth. Congratulations to Jane!

Congratulations also to John Llewellyn Probert ('A Life on the Stage'), Sean Logan ('Dollhouse by the Sea'), Sam Dawson ('Man Under'), and Steve Goldsmith ('The Boys With the Ball') - all received honourable mentions for stories in ST#24. From ST#25, Mike Chislett's story 'The Middle Park' got a mention, as did Iain Rowan's 'The Singing' from ST#23. That's some kind of record, I think.

Check out the Buy Supernatural Tales page for info on various purchasable formats. End of compulsory commercial.

Saturday 1 November 2014

A whistle for the doctor...

The BBC's long-running medical soap Doctor's had a Hallowe'en special. The blurb on the BBC iPlayer reads:

'Al is forced to confront his scepticism of the supernatural when he finds a whistle with mysterious powers.'

You can see it here. It's available for four weeks.

UPDATE: Just watched it. A rather fun adaptation, owing something to Miller's Omnibus version with Michael Hordern. Nice to see the emphasis on the Templars with their shadowy past and Crusading role, plus the use (twice) of the Walter Scott lines. For a daytime show with a low budget, the actual Thing was pretty good. The writer, Jeremy Hylton Davies, is to be congratulated for getting an enjoyable ghost story onto BBC television. No easy task.

Friday 31 October 2014

Happy Hallowe'en!

Hallowe'en Movies 3. What scares you?

I've listed some spiffing spooky movies thus far, but there is the question of fright. Some years ago I recommended a film to someone and they (as in, a couple) decided to watch it late at night. I had specifically warned them not to watch it before bedtime (and I was unanimous in this). Sure enough, I got a sad little email reading something like: 'We were too scared to go to bed straight away, and so had to watch a couple of episodes of Scooby Doo.' You don't see that kind of endorsement on bus adverts. Anyway, the film in question is in this list of films that scared me. See if you can guess which one it is, and let me know which (if any) films genuinely scare you.

1. The Last Broadcast (1998)

This obscure independent movie is widely considered to have 'inspired' The Blair Witch Project and so, indirectly, a whole slew of found footage horror. Please, don't let that put you off - it uses found footage, certainly, but does so with intelligence. The plot is simple - a documentary maker tries to find out who or what killed a team making an episode of a cult internet radio series in the New Jersey Pine Barrens. The show in question was about the 'Jersey Devil'. When I first watched this I had no clue what was going on, and very careful pacing kept me on edge till the final revelation. Brilliance on a budget.

2. The Grudge (Ju-On) (2002)

Japanese supernatural horror arguably reached its peak with Takashi Shimizu's cinematic remake of his own direct-to-video shocker. The film spawned a franchise, but the original is the one that packs the punch. It's a series of six episodes concerning a haunting. The title refers to a curse born of violent rage and murder. This ain't Ghostbusters. Many of the film's most effective scenes have - inevitably - been 'adapted' by other writers and directors. But in their original context they work all too well. I for one am never going into anyone's attic without backup.


Thursday 30 October 2014

Hallowe'en Movies 2. They Talks Funny, Them Furriners

These are all subtitled films I enjoyed.

1. The Orphanage (2007)

A Spanish story of loss and redemption that will have the most hard-bitten watcher wiping away a tear. Like all the best ghost stories it works, first and foremost, as a story. In a very strong cast Belen Rueda's lead performance is compelling and never overdone, and the gradual shift from domestic drama to supernatural mystery hasn't been done better, in part thanks to use of children's games. 'One, two, three, knock on the wall...'

2. Let the Right One In (2008)

Scandinavian stuff is big at the moment, but this one is arguably the best example of the Nordic horror genre. It's not to everyone's taste - it's take on vampirism is rather grim. But it is also careful to keep the most violent screen off-screen and is careful to show just how problematic a vampire's existence can be. It is also one of the few films that reveals just what happens when a vampire enters a home uninvited. Here is a study of loneliness and need, one far more compelling than films that glamorise - and hence trivialise - the undead.

3. Faust (1926)

Still visually remarkable nearly ninety years on, F.W. Murnau's take on the classic German tale bears comparison to his better-known Nosferatu. The opening sequence, in which an angel and a devil manifest themselves over a Renaissance landscape, is stunning. The performance of Emil Jannings as Mephisto is timeless; he conveys the sense of mischief found in Mystery play depictions of the Devil as a worldly tempter and yet - as the image below shows - he also channels Milton's magisterial Satan. It doesn't get much more supernatural than this.

Hard time in the old town tonight...

Wednesday 29 October 2014

Hallowe'en Movies

Every year people compile lists of things to read, watch, do, and indeed wear at Hallowe'en. As I'm not a fashion guru (pause for gasps all round) I'll leave the spooky attire to others. So let's consider some spooky movies instead.

In my arbitrary way, I've decided to divide films into categories. First up:


1. Night of the Demon (1957)

The only big-screen adaptation of an M.R. James story, and a little masterpiece of its kind. Yes, it's got a boozy Dana Andrews in the lead role, as was necessary if a British movie wanted a chance of American distribution. But that apart it's a sharp, intelligent, and convincing take on the old idea of the evil cult and the perils of summoning up things best left undisturbed. Some criticise the film on the grounds that director Jacques Tourneur shows the demon in the opening scenes. But this is an artistically necessary move. In the original story, 'Casting the Runes', we are introduced to the idea of a real menace rather easily, but film is a literal medium and Tourneur shows us just what the sceptical hero is up against. And Niall MacGinnis as Karswell is one of the most compelling Grade A baddies.

2. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)

Director Rouben Mamoulian's version of Stevenson's classic is enjoyable for many reasons, but Fredric March's Oscar-winning performance in the title roles is brilliant. There is a genuine sense of evil being unleashed when March drinks the formula. The transformation is good even by modern standards, and the joy of the ape-like Hyde at being freed is something to behold. This is a pre-Code horror movie, and there is also an air of sleaze and general grubbiness about some scenes that better reflect Stevenson's intentions. The studio, MGM, recalled most prints of this film and destroyed them when it made a much tamer version with Spencer Tracy.


Friday 24 October 2014

Ghost Stories For Hallowe'en

At this time of year a lot of people develop a sudden interest in supernatural fiction. The few parts of the internet that aren't full of porn, conspiracy theories, and cats are full of lists. Lists like this one: 'Five Must-Read Ghost Stories for Hallowe'en'.

Oliver Tearle has a book to plug, as is the norm with such things, but his list is a decent one. His starting point is the late-Victorian 'shift from what Virginia Woolf called "the blood-stained sea captains, the white horses, the headless ladies of dark lanes and windy commons" towards newer, more ambiguous and more unsettling, types of ghost.

Thursday 23 October 2014

ST#28 Contents

What's in the next issue? I'm glad you asked. There are some stories!

'Fiveplay' - E. Michael Lewis

Naughty adults shouldn't play certain kinds of games...

'Doorways' - William Wanless

An old-school tale of a strange curse and a desperate solution

'A Name in the Dark' - Michael Chislett

Another unique tale of magical London from a criminally underrated author

'Look Both Ways' - Sam Dawson

Nostalgia can take possession of a man

'Mr and Mrs Havisham' - Gillian Bennett

A portrait, a haunting, but not exactly a haunted portrait

'Snowman, Frozen' - Tim Foley

A writer goes to a remote cabin to finish a screenplay...

'Bright Hair About the Bone' - Jacob Felsen

A poetic exploration of love and loss

'The Shrouder' – William I.I. Read

A weird tale about a weird tale

Out in November. Prepare yourself for preternatural peril, and that sort of thing.

Saturday 18 October 2014

He's at it again...

Robert Lloyd Parry's Nunkie Theatre Company is on the road again this autumn. From Hallowe'en onward RLP will be performing two 'new' M.R. James stories. The title off the new show, 'Casting the Runes', is a bit of a giveaway. But, as fans will be aware, the show always contains two stories (and an intermission) - and the second is a bit of a surprise.

'The Residence at Whitminster' isn't the most obvious choice for a one-man performance. It's set in two historical periods with no modern framing narrative. But it's notable that in the new G&S Book of Shadows there are two stories inspired by 'Whitminster', as it is rather strong in terms of both character and ideas.

Anyway, I look forward to the latest Nunkie-tastic show with my usual droopy enthusiasm. I will report in due course when he performs in Newcastle.

Friday 17 October 2014

The Complex (2013)

The Complex (2013) Poster
Hideo Nakata directed Ring, Ring 2, and Dark Water, and so can claim to be at least one of the true begetters of J-Horror. If it weren't for Nakata's considerable talents I would probably not have sat through quite so many films in which young Japanese, Korean, Thai and Chinese people dash along concrete corridors under faulty strip lights.

Nakata's latest, The Complex, is at first and indeed second glance a return to familiar territory. The eponymous setting is a run-down block of flats very like the one in Dark Water. As in the earlier film the protagonist is a woman whose mental health seems fragile, and the haunting itself is down to an accident rather than malice. The focus of the film is not so much horror (though there's a decent measure of it) as neglect, and the harm that a selfish, thoughtless society can inflict on its weakest members.

The film begins with scenes of mundane domesticity, as nursing student Asuka (former pop star Atsuko Maeda) moves into the complex with her parents and younger brother. During the bustle of unpacking there's a typically subtle hint of things being not-quite-right which is very brief but telling. Asuka is disconcerted by a reclusive elderly neighbour whose loud alarm clock goes off very early in the morning. And is that a scratching at the wall?

It's no surprise when the old man next door turns out to have died from malnutrition. He left claw marks on the wall that divided his home from Asuka's room. Cue some bad dreams for Asuka, and the arrival of a clear-up squad, specialising in cases of death by neglect. One of the team, Shinobu (Hiroki Narimiya), explains to Asuka that the ghosts of the lonely often attach themselves to other lonely people; such spirits are best avoided. And soon we find that Shinobu has his own burden...

I don't think anyone who has enjoyed Nakata's work will be disappointed with this one. There is an effective haunting, a bit of bait-and-switch, a Big Reveal, and a climactic scene of genuine horror. The supporting cast are as good as we've come to expect from a director who depicts the stained, worn fabric of Japanese society with a few deft character strokes, and fortunately for the film's overall balance Atsuko Maeda acquits herself well.

Some of the scenes have a slightly familiar feel, because full-on supernatural horror in a realistic setting is a familiar concept. There are only so many ways the Bad Thing can manifest itself and do harm. But there is a lot of interesting stuff here, not least a rehash of that old favourite, the attempted (Shinto/shamanistic) exorcism that goes on as the Evil Force batters at the threshold.

So, The Complex is a qualified success - not a classic, perhaps, but a solid addition to the Nakata canon and proof that the Japanese ghost story is still alive on screen.

There seems to be no English subtitled trailer, so here's the Japanese one.

Saturday 11 October 2014

A Look at the New G&S Book of Shadows

Artwork by Paul Lowe

Here are a dozen stories, all derived to some extent from the tales of M.R. James. Most are sequels, but there is a prequel and two stories that tackle stories from the middle, so to speak. In some cases, part of the game is guessing before it becomes obvious. I think you'd have to have a fairly detailed knowledge of all James' works, not just the famous ones, but that's a given with the audience for the book - isn't it? Oh, and one of the stories is by me, which makes this the first collection I've reviewed that contains a personal emanation. It's a strange feeling.

Anyway, the first story is by Peter Bell and concerns the vile doings and terrible fate of the Lord of the High Court of the Wapentak of Wirral. If that isn't enough to set your Jamesian juices flowing, he offers us an epigraph from Milton's 'Lycidas' and a framing narrative in which the narrator explains that he has pieced the story together from correspondence. 'The Sands o' Dee' is an old-school story, but far superior to outright pastiche. The core incidents are suitably eerie and horrific.

While editor Ro Pardoe doesn't say which stories link to which original works, C(live). E. Ward's '11334' does give the game away in the title. I don't think it matters. Like Peter Bell's story, '11334' is a carefully-constructed extrapolation of a Jamesian idea. It pivots on mysterious threatening letters that, for a very good reason, the reader doesn't get to see until fairly late in the day.

There are any number of ways to categorise these tributes to MRJ, but the one that leaps out - for me - is whether the setting is contemporary, or nearly so. This is the case with Helen Grant's 'The Third Time', a story that works out - quite rationally - what the consequences of the good intentions of a decent Jamesian character might be. Suffice to say our modern hero fares no better than Monty's less lucky protagonists. Whether he merits his fate is another matter, of course.

Just as contemporary but utterly different in style and execution is 'Slapstick' by Christopher Harman. With typical psychological intensity and deftly cinematic images, Harman takes us into the mind of a school caretaker whose everyday concerns gradually become entwined with something altogether more peculiar. Harman fans (I'm one) will not be disappointed.

It's always a pleasure to encounter a writer for the first time and find that you're on their wavelength. For me that was certainly the case with John Ward, whose 'The Partygoers' is a witty and thoughtful comment on the modern tendency to make silly TV shows about 'real life' hauntings. It's refreshing to find that a simple premise drawn from a passage in one of MRJ's later, lesser tales can inspire a solid modern story like this.

Thursday 2 October 2014

Ghosts + Palin = Ratings Winner, Probably

Michael Palin is to appear in a three-part BBC drama, categorised as a thriller, with a supernatural theme. This is a rare outing for the most peripatetic Python, best known for his travels but also an accomplished actor on film and TV. He has of course done a bit of comedy, but has tackled more serious roles. Remember Me, set in Palin's native Yorkshire, will also star Julia Sawalha (Absolutely Fabulous, Jonathan Creek) and Mina Anwar (The Thin Blue Line, House of Anubis).

The writer is Gwyneth Hughes, who scripted The Girl (dealing with Hitchcock and Tippi Hedren), and Miss Austen Regrets. Her track record inspires confidence. Would it be too much to hope that the BBC is going to start producing ghost stories and related weird fiction for grown-ups on a regular basis? Yes, it almost certainly would. But we can at least cross our fingers.

According to the Guardian report, this is Michael Palin's first leading TV role since 1991 (in Alan Bleasdale's gritty political drama GBH). Remember Me concerns 'a mysterious care home resident who is the only witness to a violent death'. Palin is quoted as saying: "I've always loved ghost stories, so playing the lead in one is a very exciting prospect."

And now...

Tuesday 30 September 2014

The Loney

Folk horror is an interesting term. For cinephiles, it covers the Seventies British horror films The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and Blood on Satan's Claw. As a telephile (if that's a word) it also embraces rather a lot of Nigel Kneale's output - especially the episode 'Baby' from the classic series Beasts. Those dramas are all products of the Seventies, as was the Play for Today Robin Redbreast and the cult classic Penda's Fen. Even children's television got in on the act - check out Children of the Stones and the Doctor Who adventure 'The Daemons'.

There was something about that decade, when the late-Sixties counter-culture collided with old-school British cynicism and what had seemed a fairly stable, if very imperfect world started to seem a bit out-of-kilter. But it should be noted that folk horror, in literary fiction, has been around a while. M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood all had different takes on local legends and traditional beliefs. One can also find folk horror in Robert Aickman's nightmarish tales, the ghost stories of Robert Westall, and the myth-driven novels of Alan Garner.

Which brings me to The Loney, a folk horror novel with a strong supernatural component. It has a Seventies setting, which can't be entirely coincidental. Here's the author, giving us a bit of background and some extracts.

The story begins with Smith, the adult narrator, learning from the news that the body of a child has been found in the remains of a house, Thessaly, which stood on a remote stretch of the Cumbrian coast. The 'wild and useless stretch of English coastline' is the Loney of the title - a bleak, ambiguous place offering the beauty of nature, but also a sense of intense isolation. Smith knew the body was there, and realises the investigation will have consequences for himself and his older brother Hanny.

Sunday 28 September 2014

The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows, Volume 2

I'm not sure what the etiquette is when you've actually got a story in a book, but there it is. My story 'Lineage' can be found alongside those of several authors I've been proud to publish in ST over the years. Indeed, most of those involved seem to be ST 'alumni', which feels good. The picture comes courtesy of Helen Grant's FB page. Find out more about the book from Sarob Press here. I'll have more to say about the other contributors' stories in due course.

Cover art by Paul Lowe

Thursday 25 September 2014

Like a rat up a drainpipe...

Similes. Editors love them, and you can never use enough weird ones. (I am kidding, just in case you missed the tone, there.) But the internet is awash with examples of bad similes produced by modern students, as if there's something new about dodgy analogies. A bit of 'research' (i.e. Googling stuff) should convince anyone that there's nothing new about silly similes and so forth. 

But first, some examples that popped up on Facebook and are supposedly down to modern students:

'She was like a magnet - attractive from the back, repulsive from the front.' (Basic physics.)
'Her eyes twinkled, like the moustache of a man with a cold.' (Smooth.)
'The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object.' (Have to admit, this one's hard to beat as deadpan humour.) 
'She had him like a toenail stuck in a shag carpet.' (Ouch.) 
'It was as easy as taking a candy from a diabetic man who no longer wishes to eat candy.' 

But let's be fair, it isn't easy to find an apt simile, and the stranger the thing you're trying to compare, the harder it gets. 

Which might explain why the Victorian poet Swinburne kept falling back on the word strange to describe all the big things in life, and indeed life itself. Other things Swinburne declared to be strange include sleep, heaven, fate, 'night and morning, stars and sun'; 'chance or doom', and 'hope's green blossom touched with time's harsh rust'. 

But that's poets for you - they play by different rules. 

Monday 22 September 2014

Ghosts & Scholars

I found a couple of early issues of Ghosts & Scholars at a book fair last weekend. They bear a strong resemblance to the latest G&S newsletter - back to the future, or possibly forward to the past? The point is that, if you don't read G&S you're missing out on some great fiction, very entertaining essays, and informative reviews. Ro Pardoe is a legendary editor in our small supernatural world, and continues to set a standard that others - like me - aspire to reach.

The latest issue, for instance, contains stories by D.P. Watt, Peter Bell, and Jacqueline Simpson. They area all in the M.R. James tradition, but - as always with G&S - are excellent stand-alone stories in their own right. There's also a great cover showing the mysterious globe in the maze from 'Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance'.

So, just a quick mention for another publication that offers ghost story enthusiasts exactly what they're looking for.

Thursday 18 September 2014

The Metanatural Adventures of Dr. Black

Gentle reader, a quick test of reading preferences.

Vladimir Nabokov
James Joyce
T.S. Eliot
Ezra Pound
Flann O'Brien
Alasdair Gray

If you don't really like any or all of the above, this is not the review for you. Move along now, nothing to see, etcetera. If, on the other hand, you like all that playful modernist stuff, you may enjoy this new collection from Brendan Connell, an author new to me. He sent me a pdf of TMAoDB, and I read and enjoyed it. I didn't understand all of it, but for me that's part of the pleasure.

In his introduction, Jeff VanderMeer rightly observes that Connell is playful and witty, and that he offers his reader great chunks of erudition. To some, this is a repellent trait in an author, perhaps because they feel the writer is holding forth like a prize bore at the dinner table. I feel differently - given the amount of clichéd tripe out there, something a bit out of the ordinary is very welcome.

All very well, but what's it about? Well, Dr. Black is, we are told, 'taller than a midget' (something he and I have in common) at 4 feet 11 inches. He has an impressive bearded countenance, a mighty brain, a splendid torso, and thin legs. He seems to be reasonably wealthy as well as highly erudite, and dedicates much of his time to the pursuit of arcane knowledge. But, like most of us, he can fall victim to animal passions - especially when it comes to the not-unrelated areas of food and lust.

Thus the first story, 'A Season with Dr. Black', finds out meta-hero at home with his domestic retainers, enjoying tomato soup and generally living the good life. A destabilising factor arrives n the form of a young woman called Tandy, whose car breaks down outside the Black residence. The course of true(?) love does not run smooth. This sort of thing seldom bodes well:
“Place your foot upon me, your slave,” she whispered, and let the sound dissipate in the still air, while the quivering of her lips by no means cut short the rose that blossomed within her, a dark maroon, with glistening thorns.
Some might find this prose overdone, too arch, a style that is self-consciously stylish. But it's not as if Connell is asking the reader to accept something new - modernism is a centenarian, at the very least. And it makes a refreshing change from the sub-Hemingway 'realism' that has long been the default setting for most writers.

On matters of content, things are more complicated. Some of the stories here don't qualify as supernatural fiction, but at least one does. The last tale, 'Dr. Black and the Red Demon Temple', contains a Japanese ghost story that recalls Lafcadio Hearn's reworking of classic folk tales, and is very good by any standard. But the traditionally eerie is a small part of the banquet of oddness on offer here.

Thus in one story we find a supposedly authentic account by Archimedes, no less, of his creation of a female android, It's a brilliant example of genre-spanning fiction, merging as it does the legends of Talos (the metal giant created by Daedalus) and Pygmalion to create a kind of classical Frankenstein. In another tale we enter something approaching William Burroughs country, as Dr. Black ventures into a Latin American republic on the verge of revolution, a process in which native hallucinogens and a mysterious cave system play a significant role. There are also odd interludes in which (among other things) the good doctor goes undercover at a convent, a comic touch that reminded me of 'Sister Josephine' by Jake Thackray.

Then there are what some clever folk call the paratextual elements - references, footnotes, the general paraphernalia of old-fashioned scholarship, mostly fake and often amusing. Flann O'Brien's 'great de Selby' was not so well served. There's also a questionnaire which asks (along with 'How much will you say under interrogation?') how satisfied the reader is with the book. Overall, I would plump for Very Satisfied.

Ghost Story Readings - Essex Police Museum

Among the readers of classic ghost stories with a legal/criminal flavour is Roger Johnson, who is always worth hearing and indeed chatting with. According to Roger, the stories are 'by M R James, Charles Dickens and Ex-Private X (i.e. A.M. Burrage)'.

Find out more here.

Monday 8 September 2014

Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: Stories for J.S. Le Fanu

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born just over 200 years ago, and occupies a unique position in the twilight realm of ghostly fiction. Le Fanu was a very successful Victorian novelist, an equally accomplished short story writer, and produced poetry and drama for good measure. He is arguably the central figure in what we call Gothic fiction, as he wrote after the genre had matured but died well before the modern horror story begins to emerge in the Edwardian era.

Le Fanu was man of contradictions - these writer chappies often are. A famous recluse in his later years, he was rather well-travelled. He was an Irish literary giant, but agreed to set his novels in England to reach a wider audience. Two of his best-loved stories, 'Carmilla' and 'Schalken the Painter', are set on the continent. Elsewhere he focuses on Irish folklore and the native culture of the Catholic peasantry he knew well, but stood apart from as a Protestant of Huguenot descent.

Dublin-based Swan River Press has produced a volume of stories to mark Le Fanu's bicentenary, jointly edited by Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers. These are not sequels/prequels to Le Fanu tales, but works  that examine some of the themes and ideas the author tackled. As such, Dreams of Shadows and Smoke is a fine collection in its own right, as well as a solid tribute to the 'invisible prince' of Irish fiction.

Monday 1 September 2014

Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, and Susannah Edwards

An odd title for a post, but those names belonged to three witches executed in Devon 322 years ago. They were the last people hanged for witchcraft in England. Now modern witches (some in pointy hats, it must be said) are demanding a posthumous pardon for the women. They were of course convicted of witchcraft because neighbours said bad things about them, they were poor... and that's about it. The Wikipedia entry on the case seems to have been sourced from Sabine Baring-Gould.

A plaque at Exeter’s Rougemont Castle commemorates the 1682 Bideford witch trial

The inclusion of Alice Molland is debatable, but it at least possible that she was the last person to be hanged for witchcraft. The problem is that primary source material seems to be lacking.

There is always a debate about whether pardons long after an injustice mean anything. But it doesn't hurt to draw attention to a stain on our history. 

Wherever people believe in witchcraft, witches will be found. Admittedly, sometimes they make it easy.

Today's witches look like an amiable crowd. I wish them well. It's a pity that this latest gathering didn't beat the all-time record for the largest number of witches in any one place. That was set two years ago at Warwick castle; 765 witches. There is no information on the number of cats. Probably quite a few.

Friday 29 August 2014

Assorted Carmillas

I was going to include these in the little post on Le Fanu I wrote on Thursday morning, but there are so many variations on Carmilla that they deserve their own piece. Spend a few minutes Googling her and you will be left in no doubt that she's the only genuinely popular character Le Fanu created, leaving poor old Silas and company in the dust. First, book covers and illustrations.

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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...