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.

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...