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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Thursday 28 August 2014

Burnt Black Suns

Simon Strantzas is one of an abundant crop of Canadian horror writers who emerged over the last ten to fifteen years. Burnt Black Suns falls squarely into the modern horror genre (if I'm any judge, which I may not be). The overall tone is somewhat grim, but there are a few touches of humour - and indeed absurdity. Indeed, at times I was genuinely unsure whether Strantzas is offering 'straight' contemporary horror or a satirical commentary upon it. But perhaps that's the point?

'Thistle's Find', for instance, is a grisly little story in which the narrator - a typical pulp fiction low-life seeking sanctuary - discovers that the eponymous mad scientist has build a strange portal. Something has come through this trans-dimensional door, and without giving too much away it sums up why a lot of horror fiction puts me off. It manages to be wholly incredible as a story, and at the same time rather unpleasant.

'Emotional Dues' is a more sophisticated take on the body horror theme, with an artist unwisely trying to cut out the middle man and sell his paintings directly to a shadowy collector.The collector, it transpires, does more than simply gloat over his purchases... A problem I had with this one is that it feels as if two very different stories have been bolted together. One is a pulpy tale of a strange, grotesque entity and its bizarre needs, the other concerns the source of an artist's creativity. Arguably, one idea informs the other, but for me they merely seemed to get tangled to no good purpose.

Several stories show Lovecraft's influence. 'On Ice' is an almost straight Mythos tale, in which a scientific expedition to an Arctic island find more than they bargained for. There are some powerful passages, but it is somewhat undermined by the impression that these are Hollywood movie scientists and nothing like the real thing. A similar problem besets 'One Last Bloom', in which a deep sea expedition finds alien life. All good fun for the Arkham academics.

Altogether different is 'By Invisible Hands'. It has a whiff of Ligottian fantasy about it, with its tale of a puppet maker recruited to perform one last job. It works as horror because the nightmare situation is dramatised rather than explained, leaving the reader unsure as to how much of it is real and how much the product of a mind that has forgotten what humanity is like.

'Strong as a Rock' also recalls he author's earlier fiction. Here two brothers embark upon an ill-advised climb, and one is injured. The reasons for the climb - a way of bonding and overcoming grief over bereavement - become interwoven with the strange events at the hospital where they seek help. There is a genuine sense of disorientation, here - the horror of a world that we can pretend makes sense, but which falls apart under stress, as do we.

'Burnt Black Suns', a novella that closes the collection, is also powerful. A man sets out (long-suffering, pregnant girlfriend in tow) to find his ex-wife, who absconded with their son. The quest takes them to a Mexican town where the locals follow a strange hybrid of the Aztec and Christian faiths. The atmosphere is well-evoked, as is the protagonist's selfish, blinkered obsession with his son. The grand finale is suitably overwhelming, and bizarre enough to be a genuine religious experience - something few horror writers can manage.

I preferred the earlier collections Cold to the Touch and Beneath the Surface - get them if you can. But Burnt Black Suns has plenty to offer, and I suspect that its sheer diversity means that most readers will find something to satisfy them.

Le Fanu

Born 200 years ago today, J. Sheridan Le Fanu is one of a handful of authors of Victorian Gothic fiction to register on the radar of the modern horror fan. Unlike Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley, Le Fanu wrote more than one classic tale - 'The Familiar', 'Green Tea', 'Schalken the Painter' and 'Carmilla' are all much-anthologised, and at least one of his novels, Uncle Silas, has never been out of print.

That said, 'Carmilla' has made most of the running when it comes to film and other adaptations. Without Le Fanu the history of vampire fiction would have been different, and the British horror film of the late Sixties/early Seventies would have been stuck for ideas.

So, here is my little tribute page for an author whose work I've always enjoyed and often find myself re-reading. Let's begin seriously, with an article at the Time Higher Educational Supplement that places Le Fanu the writer and the man within the sweep of Irish (and British) history. There is also an appreciation at The Irish Times. The latter ends with the following from V.S. Pritchett.
“Le Fanu’s ghosts are the most disquieting of all ghosts ... The secret doubt, the private shame, the unholy love scratch away with malignant patience in the guarded mind. It is we who are the ghosts. Let illness, late nights and green tea [the title of one of the In a Glass Darkly stories] weaken the catch we normally keep clamped so firmly down, and out slink one by one all the hags and animals of moral or Freudian symbolism.”
Over at Project Gutenberg, we find Le Fanu's books ranged by order of popularity. 'Carmilla' is number one, followed by Uncle Silas, then a collection of 'Ghostly Tales'. Not at all surprising.

Here is a fairly recent BBC dramatisation of 'Carmilla'.

And here are some covers of Le Fanu books from around the literary world.

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Joel Lane stories online

The death of Joel Lane last November was a considerable shock to many lovers of horror/weird fiction. He was only fifty years old. Spectral Press has an online archive and it will soon include several of his stories. One is already up. You can read Joel's story 'Black Country' here.

Joel Lane was very encouraging in the early days of ST when I wondered if the game was worth the candle. He even contributed stories and a memorable essay ('This Spectacular Darkness'), for which I was very grateful. I have nothing brilliant or insightful to say about him, except that he left us all a legacy of fine, intelligent writing.

Monday 25 August 2014

Count Magnus in the Frame

Art by Paul Lowe

Chatting recently (via trend social media) with celebrated ghost story author Steve Duffy, we touched upon the various adaptations of M.R. James stories. 'Count Magnus' was mentioned, as a story that has not been filmed despite being very popular. Most admirers of MRJ would put it in their top ten, if not top five.

One possibility is that the framing narrative causes problems. As you may recall, the papers of Mr. Wraxall fall into the nameless narrator's hands after a house he inherits is torn down. Thus we know from the the start that the story is happening at two removes - it's a story on the page for a person in a story on the page. As a framing device it's fine, but it might be a bit tricky on screen.

Or would it? Because the essence of the story is the excessive and arbitrary nature of the Count's violence. We know that, when he was alive, he dealt out brutal punishments to fractious peasants 'with no sparing hand'. We discover that in death he exacts an appalling toll upon two poachers in his woods. One is driven mad by witnessing he fate of the man who is killed by having... Well, if you haven't read the story I won't spoil it. Heh heh heh.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the only reasonable view is that Mr. Wraxall falls foul of the Count simply because - like the poachers - he shows insufficient respect for an old-school aristocrat. The English tourist is rather flippant about Magnus, calling him a rascal and so forth. This is enough to trigger what is essentially a kind of wild hunt across northern Europe, with Wraxall as the prey.

Getting back to our putative adaptation, what might work is simply this. Narrator chappie is presented with MS found in demolished house. Produces it in front of friend(s) and reads it to him/them. Asks 'What do you think?' A sensible chap remarks that it's a load of nonsense - of course a long-dead Swedish count couldn't do such things. 'Count Magnus is at best a heap of old bones, dear fellow - and has been for centuries!'

Woops. Cue closing shot of sceptical chap exiting onto night-bound street, at the end of which we see the profiles of a tall, cloaked figure and a much smaller companion. Perhaps a quick flash of tentacle, give the punters what they want.

Well, that's my take on it. If anyone called Spielberg wants me, I'll be in the bath.

That's All, Folks!

I've decided to close ST for submissions a bit early because I have received a great many stories. There is another reason that I'm not at liberty to reveal at the moment. Yes, a big mysterious secret, but such is the glamorous world of tiny magazine editing. Sorry to disappoint anyone planning to submit this week, but I'm snowed under and I've got to take the time and do justice to everyone.

A Row About Lovecraft

The World Fantasy Award is a little statuette of H.P. Lovecraft, who was intensely racist. Some people think this a bad thing and want to change the award. Others claim Lovecraft's racism was no big deal at the time and that we shouldn't just a writer of the inter-war years by modern standards anyway. I disagree with this - to me, as an admirer of Lovecraft, racism is obviously central to his artistic world-view. If they don't change the award now, they'll only have to repeat this debate in few years when a sufficiently high-profile writer rejects it, or refuses to be nominated in the first place. But someone says it far better than me here. Well done David Nickle (an author new to me) for summing things up so well.
The legacy of racists like Lovecraft is still very much in play in contemporary society, from the Obama birthers to the Ferguson cops and most points between... and the discussion as to how to contain that legacy is far from over. In a perverse way, Lovecraft's retrograde views on race may be his most socially relevant contribution to 20th century weird literature... not as an advocate of his views, not by any means, but as an example of where we've been and what too many of us still share, an opportunity to critique those views through the lens of cosmic horror and alien gods. 

Wednesday 20 August 2014

Ian D. Montfort

Why aren't more psychics like this?

The Long and the Short

I've amended my Guidelines page to place less emphasis on very short stories, simply because during the current round of submissions I'm being bombarded by tales under 2,000 words long. I think I owe it to readers to offer a broad range of stories, and that means a range of styles, themes, and lengths. So if you have a story that's, say, 6,000 words long and might be termed a supernatural tale, why not send it to me? Variety is the spice of life.

Monday 18 August 2014



If, dear reader, you are at all like me, you are a bit of a dipper. Nothing pervy implied, I just mean that you may be one who dips into collections of stories, reference works, biographies, dictionaries, maps, stuff in general. A collection of essays on an interesting topic is especially useful to the dipper as it offers the chance to discover new interests and re-acquaint oneself with old friends. This is certainly the case with Touchstones, by John Howard, published this summer by Alchemy Press. I recently received a pdf of this volume and have been perusing it on the old Kindle.

The book collects essays by the author, an erudite and enthusiastic scholar of genre fiction. Topics range from Utopian novels to horror by way of fantasy and sf. The authors tackled range from the well-known - there's a lot of really good stuff on Fritz Leiber here - to the very obscure. In all there are twenty-two essays, every one of 'em readable and informative thanks to Howard's winning combination of clarity, enthusiasm, and erudition. All I can really do here is mention a few highlights and point out that every individual reader will have his/her own favourites, based on their reading preferences.

Thursday 14 August 2014

Open To Submissions!

Yes, it's that time again. We (in the royal sense) are open to submissions until the end of the month. Any story accepted will definitely appear in an issue of ST next year. So, get submittin', you writer types who don't want to be paid in anything so crass as money. See Guidelines for more info.

In the Guidelines I suggest people read a copy of the magazine to find out what sort of stories I might like. But of course, this would cost money and I realise some writers aren't eccentric millionaires. So instead let me point you at some free stuff online that might help you form an opinion.

Here are my readings of two stories from ST authors: 'His Head Appeared' by Jane Jakeman (very short), and 'The Edge of the Map' by Iain Rowan (about 8 mins). Those links take you to the ST YouTube channel, which contains a veritable gallimaufry of stuff that I like. And all for nuthin'.

What of the editor? Here is a story I wrote some time ago, published in Ghosts & Scholars. On the YT channel I read a story of mine that appeared in The Silent Companion. These may provide some insights into my tortured psyche and all that jazz.

'You know how to whistle, don't you?'

From the Guardian obit.

In old age, Bacall raged against what she saw as the mediocrity of contemporary Hollywood, as represented by everything from the career of Tom Cruise to the Twilight movies that her granddaughter dragged her to see. “She said it was the greatest vampire film ever made,” Bacall recalled. “After the film was over, I wanted to smack her across the head with my shoe.” 
Instead, Bacall bought the child a DVD of FW Murnau’s 1922 classic Nosferatu. “Now that’s a vampire film,” she told her sternly.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

'Pua Mana'

I've recommended the ghost stories of David Rowlands before, but it's a fact that copies of his two collections (from Ghost Story Press and Ash-Tree Press) are expensive and hard to come by. However, you can buy both as ebooks from Amazon. (If you don't have a Kindle there is a free 'app', apparently.)

His first collection was The Executor and Other Ghost Stories. The second was They Might Be Ghosts.

And it's from that second collection that the reading below is taken. David R. kindly gave me his permission to publish the story on the ST YouTube channel. It's called 'Pua Mana' ('Sea Breeze'), and it's one of several tales about Hawaiian music. I know, nothing sounds less spooky than the stuff that accompanies hula dancers in grass skirts. But stay with it - this is a rather nifty sequel to a classic ghost story. See if you can guess which one before the key scene. I will say no more!

Monday 11 August 2014

Building a Spooky Library - Ralph Adams Cram

The ghost story tradition is dotted with good 'one off' collections. Ralph Adams Cram's 1895 volume Black Spirits and White is a good example. Subtitled 'A Book of Ghost Stories', it consists of half a dozen tales. All are readable, and two or three are arguably first rate. Adams was an American architect who travelled widely in Europe, and his fiction reflects this, with lots of local colour and historical detail.

Cram's tales are relatively terse compared to the more bloated examples of mid-19th century Gothic, but they still have some of the sillier (and staler) elements of the genre. Thus 'In Kropfsberg Keep' offers a story (within a story within a story) that has too much flummery. But, like all of Cram's best stories, the supernatural threat is well-realised. There's a memorable 'dance of the dead' scene that shows a playful, rather poetic mind at work.

The same can be said of 'No. 252 Rue M. Le Prince', with its theme of devil worship discovered. The descriptions of strange chambers within the eponymous Parisian house are excellent, foreshadowing similar 'posh Satanism' in the works of Wheatley and others. When the Nasty Thing finally emerges it is better than the usual demonic presence, consisting of something rather proto-Lovecraftian:

'Suddenly a wet, icy mouth, like that of a dead cuttlefish, shapeless, jelly-like, fell over mine. The horror began slowly to draw my life from me...'

It would interesting to know if Cram had read Maupassant - it seems likely, if he spent any considerable time in France. There is certainly a touch of old Guy about 'Notre Dame des Eaux', with its Finisterre setting and its theme of unrequited love and madness. It's arguable that Cram chickens out where Maupassant would have gone for the kill, but the central premise is strong and the climactic scene is effective.

Less enjoyable, for me, is 'Sister Maddelena', with its gentle, ghostly nun. It's a little dull, and the revelation is somewhat unconvincing. Perhaps its religiosity is part of the problem (Cram underwent a conversion experience and became a fervent Anglo-Catholic). The same might be said for 'The White Villa'. In this and other stories, one can't help noticing that Cram seems to have a very American 'thing' for  aristocrats. His stories are full of noble folk and peasants, the former doing despicable deeds, the latter recounting the toffs' crimes to tourists.

The final story, 'The Dead Valley', is arguably the best. Lovecraft felt that in it Cram achieved 'a memorably potent degree of vague regional horror through subtleties of atmosphere and description'. It works well precisely because of that vagueness - an old man's account of a valley that's filled with mist and where nothing seems able to live is just that, an account. Nothing is explained, no back story even hinted at - it's a very modern tale in that respect.

All in all, Cram is worth reading and his sole book of ghost stories isn't hard to obtain. Midnight Press has a nice paperback, and there is also a cheap Kindle edition.

Monday 4 August 2014

The Silver Voices

The genuinely lost worlds are those that are always with us. The lost worlds of history and the people who haunt them are the subjects of John Howard's stories in The Silver Voices. The collection was originally published in Bucharest by Ex Occidente in 2010, and Swan River Press have produced a splendid new edition with a cover that hints at the period during which most of these stories are set. 

A small caveat: the interlinked stories in this collection sometimes contain elements of the fantastic, but don't (generally speaking) qualify as ghost stories. I suspect that some readers may feel cheated by this, but for my money that's not really an issue. There is a shadowy hinterland on the margins of mainstream fiction that isn't quite genre, and these stories occupy some parts of that terrain.

The one constant in the tales is a fictional(?) Transylvanian town - Steaua de Munte in the kingdom of Romania, Sternbergstadt under the Dual Monarchy. The town is arguably the true hero, in that it endures despite the many adversities of time and conflict. It might even called the Everytown of Howard's Balkan world.

The first story, 'Artist in Residence', concerns conservation, nostalgia, and conflicting ideas of progress. Austria-Hungary is in the throes of modernisation, and the town's mediaeval walls are breached for the sake of fashionable boulevards. An artist is recruited to draw the town as it was, before it is changed forever. As he does so he ceases to be a stranger.

'Boundaries', set during the Great War, is on the face of it a rather frivolous tale of a British officer who organises a cricket match among PoWs. But it also suggests something of the misplaced optimism among the idealists - many of whom had fought in the war - about the possibilities of a new, post-imperial Europe.

Misplaced optimism is certainly the them of 'The Rise and Fall of the SSS', in which Steaua de Munte gets its own rocketry society. For those who like such things, as I do, it is fascinating to chart the way in which spaceflight enthusiasts formed clubs across Europe between the wars. While the (real) British Interplanetary Society came up with the first practical moonshot concept, Howard's enthusiasts fare less well.

As time marches on, the shadows grow longer and the humour - when there is any - grows more grim. 'The Reluctant Visionary' sees a modern architect discover memorabilia from 1936. In that year audiences across the world flocked to see the Wells/Korda classic Things To Come. In a story-within-a-story Felix, a young Romanian who has enjoyed the film finds himself witnessing events similar to those in Wells' Utopian vision, but with an altogether bleaker conclusion. As an unreconstructed Wellsian I found this story near flawless. (To digress for a moment - 'The Reluctanct Visionary' might be read as a response to William Gibson's 'The Gernsback Continuum', which explicitly rejects technological Utopianism.)

The next story, 'In Strange Earth', is set during the collapse of communism, which claimed to provide its citzens with the sort of world Wells and Korda strove to depict. The story contains a ghostly encounter, but its protagonist - a Ceausescu flunky fleeing to the provinces after the Leader falls - is himself a kind of revenant, a living echo of the old regime.

Totalitarianism also looms in 'The Silver Voice'. Here a modern Romanian must explore his family's past when he reads a tale about a strange, hidden room. The room is linked to the rise and fall of Romania's home-grown fascist movement, the Iron Guard, offer the familiar mixture of 'nationalism, religious mysticism, and... anti-Semitism'. (It's also worth noting that they had as their symbol The Triple Cross - you couldn't make it up.) The parallel is neatly drawn between love of country and the troubled relationship of the protagonist with his father. It's also notable for a story-within-a-story that convincingly re-creates the fabulistic style of many pre-war writers.

The final story, 'To Hope for a Caesar', is a tale of intrigue in which a British visitor to Berlin hears the 'confession' of a former communist official. It evokes the insanity of 20th century Europe, in which outwardly normal people had to profess insane beliefs, and switch allegiance between different ideologies overnight. It ends on a note of mystery, as befits a collection of enigmatic tales.

John Howard is clearly in love with history, and the way ideas, lives, and the so-called forces of history are interwoven. It's especially apt that Swan River has reprinted this collection now, one hundred years after so many old certainties were gunned down at Sarajevo.

Friday 1 August 2014

"Because he knows a frightful fiend
Doth close behind him tread."

The poster, with artwork by the estimable Paul Lowe, is for Nunkie Productions latest M.R. James tour. There's a whiff of Night of the Demon about it, I think. The full tour schedule has yet to be announced, but I know that the show is premièring at the Lowry (Salford) on Hallowe'en.

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...