Monday 24 February 2014

Supernatural Radio 4

Not sure why, but there's a feast of supernatural fiction on Radio 4 (the BBC's premier speech network, if you didn't know.) At the moment there's a dramatisation of The Exorcist, Peter William Blatty's novel that was controversially filmed in a fashion that didn't do Mike Oldfield's accountant any harm. You can hear it on the BBC iPlayer here.

And next week, by way of contrast, you can hear a reading of a new novel by Lynne 'Eats, Shoots, and Leaves' Truss. Cat Out of Hell is described as a 'comic and chilling gothic tale about a grieving widower and a supernatural cat'. It's serialised as the Book at Bedtime. If you don't know Lynne Truss' work, she has a sterling track record when it comes to ghost stories and related weirdness. Check out her site.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Thale (2012)

Nordic noir is the new black in crime fiction and drama. Nordic supernatural horror has been less conspicuous, but the impressive Let the Right One In certainly put Sweden on the horror movie map; less well-known is Thale, a Norwegian tale of the supernatural that is arguably just as good.

Thale begins in territory familiar to fans of The Killing, The Bridge, Wallender etcetera - dead bodies. More specifically, bodies that have been dead so long that they are difficult to detach from the floor. Yes, it's gruesome. But it's also original in that its heroes - sort of - are two ordinary blokes who go around cleaning up human remains. Sometimes these are murder victims, sometimes they are suicide, and sometimes they are just people who died and nobody noticed.

The film begins with a sinister cassette recording, then cuts to Leo and his new colleague Elvis doing things with buckets. Leo is a decent, Stoical type, and has clearly given Elvis a job (replacing someone on sick leave) out of sympathy. Elvis, we discover, has not had much luck in life, but he does have a little daughter. Leo has something else entirely, as we discover later.

Anyway, the plot proper begins when our sort-of heroes are sent to another job by the police (who we never see). An old man has died in a remote cabin and animals have been at the remains. Find the missing bits - that's the task. In their quest the pair discover something the police missed. The old man had created an underground laboratory, of sorts. In it they discover some disturbing records, medical instruments, and a bath of some odd chemical from which emerges Thale.

Thale is, apparently, a young woman who can't speak. Assuming (rightly) that she's been held prisoner, Leo calls for help and offers her something to eat. After a bit of initial mistrust Thale settles down to eating buns, while Elvis starts to examine the old man's files. Then the pair discover something in a small fridge. It is a tail; it seems that this was cut off Thale in a very crude surgical procedure. It also emerges that Thale has some kind of paranormal power.

What is Thale? Who was the old man? And what is lurking in the woods? The film is arguably a little too predictable in some respects, but it has a nature-mysticism that recalls Blackwood's best stories. The message, if there is one, is that humans are the true monsters, which seems fair enough in the light of every day's news. But what lingers - along with the shocks - is the happy ending as Leo and Elvis both find that there lives have been transformed by contact with something they can't fully understand, but which has grasped essential truths about them.

Friday 14 February 2014

Helen Grant on Marcilly-le-Hayer

M.R. James experts/nerds will be well aware of his 'Stories I Have Tried to Write'. Over at A Podcast to the Curious, the lads have recruited author and traveller Helen Grant to chat about the obscure French place mentioned by Monty in a plot concerning an old novel, a woman with a moustache, and a mysterious disappearance.

Thursday 13 February 2014

Ghosts and Gargoyles - Review

Ghosts and Gargoyles is the second collection of weird tales by Elsa Wallace, the first being The Monkey Mirror, which I reviewed here. Like the first book, this one offers value for money - there are seventeen stories, all of them readable, and some are very good indeed. While The Monkey Mirror had the unifying theme of breaking down the supposed moral and/or spiritual boundaries that traditionally separate us from other species, this collection offers more traditional fare. That said, there are still some shocks and a few tales that work by stealth, offering subtle pleasures.

Ghosts there certainly are. 'Ralph's Up Aloft', for instance, is a tale that might have been penned by Elizabeth Bowen, if she'd been a bit less posh and had Wallace's African background. It's all very genteel and restrained, but the plotting is so well-handled that I honestly didn't see the payoff coming. To describe a tale as deceptively simple might sound like a backhanded compliment, but it's not in this case.

The same applies to 'Grave Goods', a story of ladies of a certain age who love cats. The author takes a certain grim pleasure in revealing, in a series of nicely-crafted scenes, just what is going on. Suffice to say that there's a distinct 'Tales of the Unexpected' vibe about this and some other stories. 'Gargoyles', with its reclusive family pursuing creative - and increasingly monstrous - lives also has a whiff of Mr Dahl. So do some other non-supernatural vignettes, such as 'On the Bone' and 'The Jacaranda Dress'.

Then there's 'The Dutch Wife', one of several stories that hinge on the problem of distant relatives or acquaintances imposing themselves on upper-middle-class folk. In this case the visiting nuisance brings the eponymous bolster, a device that supposedly helps Europeans sleep in the tropics. The moment when surreal horror rears its head is truly nightmarish.

A few stories are lighter in tone, though the suggestion of impending horror is still there. Thus in 'Something Pipeth Like a Bird' we get some good 'sceptic v. believer' bickering at a Psychic Fair. A strange object, apparently insignificant, is found after the event. The protagonist is clearly going to have some trouble getting rid of it - assuming she wants to.

There is a feminist subtext running through many stories, and it surfaces here and there. Thus in 'An Unattended Lady' the traditional ghost story device of the spirit photograph reveals a monstrous but not uncommon injustice meted out to supposedly unbalanced females. 'Rootwood', by the same token, might have the subtitle 'Heaven Help the Working Girl', as it pivots on the severity with which working class women could be treated. And 'Grown Men', with its theme of supposed helplessness as a kind of psychic vampirism, struck me as a feminist take on Mary Wilkins Freeman story 'Luella Miller'.

Another impressive story, 'The Glass Screen', also nods to the classics, with one character referring to the Great God Pan. But it seems that particular deity is not what emerged from the screen created by an eccentric artist shunned by her peers - no small thing in the claustrophobic world of post-war Southern Rhodesia. Barely glimpsed, the horrific entity is barely glimpsed by the narrator, but is heard as 'at first a buzzing hum, like a great insect, and then a high-pitched whine that seemed just on the edge of audibility'. This is one of the most interesting and original variations on the haunted picture concept.

All in all, Ghosts and Gargoyles is a good collection, and is perhaps in danger of being overlooked because it's not published by a genre imprint. It is available from Paradise Press.

Tuesday 11 February 2014

Well Done Jane!

Good news! Jane Jakeman's Iraq invasion story from ST#24, 'Majorlena', will be appearing in Ellen Datlow's prestigious anthology of Best New Horror. List of stories at the link. And if you've no idea what I'm talking about, you can always buy the story and a few other good ones at the link to the right.

Summonings - a new Ron Weighell collection

In my occasional series Building a Spooky Library, I would have included Ron Weighell's superb 1996 collection The White Road. I would have, if this Ghost Story Press rarity didn't routinely sell for hundreds of pounds. There is no paperback, no cheaper edition, and Weighell's excellent stories are otherwise scattered hither and yon.

Now comes news that Weighell has a new collection out, this time from Sarob. Here's the info you get if you click the link.
Stories: “D’Arca*” “The World Entire” “The Counsels of Night” “Suburbs of the Black Lyre” “Now Feel that Pulse No More*” “The Mouth of the Medusa” “An Image of Truth” “The Four Strengths of Shadow*” “The Tears of the Gods (NOVELLA ~ newly expanded & fully revised)” “Into the Mysteries (an excerpt)” “Afterword” by the author. *newly written & previously unpublished.This collection is presented as a Limited, Numbered & “SIGNED” Edition Dust-Jacketed Hardcover.Bound in Wibalin (fine linen style), Foil Blocked to Spine, Full Colour Dust-Jacket, 16pp Section Sewn Binding, Head & Tailbands, Ribbon Bookmark and Coloured Endpapers. Total length approx 224pp (including afterword, prelims etc).Printed on Cream Bookwove. Tipped-in signature page on fine parchment paper with extra art and “SIGNED” by the author.Dust-Jacket & Signature Page Art by Santiago Caruso.Publication currently scheduled for Late April/May 2014.
A new book by Ron Weighell is a major event in realms of supernatural fiction. My only regret is that is that his work hasn't reached as wide an audience as it deserves. But that is hardly a unique problem.

Monday 3 February 2014

Freebies Galore!

If you click on the link to the right (single issues) you can download PDFs for nothing. It's a limited time offer, but for the next day or so you can have issues 17 to 25 for nothing.

That's right. It's a serious case of...

FREE STUFF! But not for much longer...

Sunday 2 February 2014

Dracula - Blackeyed Theatre

I first saw Dracula on stage back in the Seventies, at the Empire theatre in my home town of Sunderland. The play starred Peter Wyngarde as the sanguinary aristo, and the play itself was the familiar abridged adaptation that also features in the fine 1979 Langella/Olivier film. This cut-down Dracula dispenses with much of Stoker's palaver about Transylvania, beginning with the arrival of the Count in Whitby, which is the location not only of Lucy's seaside holiday but also of Seward's asylum and Carfax, the house Dracula moves into along with his boxes of earth.

What I saw at Hexham's Queens Hall last night, however, was Dracula as Stoker told it, with only one major modification. Remarkably, a company of five managed to convey the entirety of the novel's complex plot in just under two hours. They also pulled off the feat of making the story seem fresh, while harking back to the Victorian stage melodrama that Stoker, as Sir Henry Irving's manager, knew so well. The result was a remarkable evening that gradually won over a restless audience, and ended with a standing ovation that included what may be the only two Goths in Northumberland.

I could say a lot about the play's wit and intelligence. John Ginman's script points up the sheer weirdness and occasional absurdity of Stoker's tale simply by taking all the dialogue straight from the novel. So when Van Helsing told Seward that they must cut off Lucy's head, fill her mouth with garlic, and drive a stake through her heart, it got a laugh thanks to the sheer bluntness of the statement. When Victorian stage magic allowed the vampire hunters to actually do it there was spontaneous applause.

The doubling of roles is also a stroke of genius. Thus Lucy and Mina briefly become Dracula's brides (the third one was presumably tied up elsewhere), Harker is also the bug-eating Renfield (both are imprisoned, after all), and Dracula is transformed into Van Helsing. The latter makes for practical purposes because Dracula goes AWOL for most of the second half of the book. But it's also the case that both characters are dominant, manipulative, and inhabit a world of death - they are characters beyond any normal human relationships in what is, among other things, a love story.

Not everything works, of course. How could it, when the original novel would have any publisher's editor today demanding massive rewrites, if not sending Stoker a straight rejection? But the Blackeyed players manage to give us Dracula's world afresh, with all the music, madness, and energy of the Victorian Gothic culture that spawned it.

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...