Tuesday 30 June 2015

The Jersey Devil

Here's a fascinating article about a piece of folklore that has genuine staying power. The Jersey Devil said to haunt the Pine Barrens of New Jersey has been sort-of around for far longer than Nessie (who was first reported in the Thirties and then given a retrospective, thoroughly bogus 'history'). There's something comical about the idea of a monster, of course - when you're not alone in a forest or indeed sitting at home in the dark.

Apparently it was in 1909 that the old legend gained new life from a series of rather Fortean news items, and the Jersey Devil has been going great guns ever since.
The papers called the beast a "Woozlebug" and a "Jabberwock" as it tore across the Jersey countryside. The Times of Trenton printed cartoon panels showing the devil floating over a drunk waking from a bender.
The legend of the Jersey Devil is central the excellent, low-budget film The Last Broadcast, which I've watched several times. It's a remarkable 1998 precursor to The Blair Witch Project, and I'm putting that politely. The found-footage approach is in fact used with more intelligence in the earlier film, mixed as it is with a faux-documentary by an intense auteur-ish figure.

A few years earlier The X-Files had tackled the subject more directly, but in a way that annoyed quite a few fans of the legend. In the episode actually entitled 'The Jersey Devil' almost all of the folklore related to the story is jettisoned in a script by series producer Chris Carter. Instead we get a story of wild men in the woods and some arglebargle about evolution, which undercuts to some extent the rather good scenes involving confrontations with the mysterious entity.

The very name Pine Barrens could not improved upon by any horror writer. It's fascinating to reflect that the Devil might have been invented simply to discredit a controversial Quaker preacher, but that's showbiz. 

Oh, and it's sometimes called the Leeds Devil, but for anyone who lives in Northern England that is distinctly un-spooky. 

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Spring (2014)

'A young man in a personal tailspin flees the US to Italy, where he sparks up a romance with a woman harboring a dark, primordial secret.'

So says IMDb, and it's a fair summary of a film that tries to redefine the modern horror shocker. It does it, quite sensibly, by going back to the roots of the genre and paying tribute to some of the classics. At the same time, Spring is original and enjoyable enough to hold the interest of even a jaded viewer like me. While it's not perfect, it's as close as we're likely to get. 

The film begins with Lou Taylor Pucci's Evan, an American twenty-something whose life is not going well. We first see him sitting by his mother's deathbed. He then loses his job in a bar after punching an obnoxious customer, which gets him into trouble with the law, so on impulse he goes to Italy. There Evan falls in with a couple of drunken, foul-mouthed Brits who take a road trip to the south. The latter are, unfortunately, quite believable. 

The Brits decide that Italy is too expensive, so they go to Amsterdam(?), leaving Evan to his own devices in a small town near Naples. In this quaint setting Evan encounters Louise, played by Nadia Hilker. She is a beautiful, enigmatic, and cosmopolitan student who at first sends mixed signals for reasons that, later, will make sense. They spend the night together, and while Evan sleeps we are shown in no uncertain terms that Louise is more than simply quirky. 

We are led to think this is a werewolf movie. The reality is a bit more complex and non-traditional, and there is a nod to Lovecraft. Suffice to say that there's a major obstacle to what Evan considers the romance of his life. Meanwhile he gets work and lodging with an old Italian farmer who owns an orchard. Cue much discussion of women, life, growth, the seasons. 

Spring is approaching. And in the narrow lanes of the old town, something prowls...

Sunday 21 June 2015

Friday 19 June 2015

This Will Not End (Wailing) Well

There's a rather good comic strip version of 'Wailing Well' here. It's well-drawn and reminds me of the more 'sensible' comics of my youth, such as the Victor, and all those Commando stories of the world wars. The artist, Anna Sahrling-Hamm, is to be commended for taking the story and treating it so well. It's not quite a scene-by-scene retelling of M.R. James's tale, but I think the slight changes are rather good.

Wailing Well

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Smells like pagan spirit

I thought this poster (spotted on Facebook) must a spoof, but it's not - it's a very real show, and looks rather spiffing. Find out more here.

Ghosts on the wireless

BBC Radio 4 Extra is running a decent series of ghost stories by John Connolly. You can get them on the iPlayer here.

You can also hear a series of uncanny stories by the Scottish author Dorothy K. Haynes, which are running back to back with the Connollys. They are from the collection Thou Shalt Not Suffer A Witch, first published in 1949 with illustrations by Mervyn Peake - see below.

Peake 005

Friday 12 June 2015

Strange Tales V - a reading in Brighton

A quick bit of news...

If you're in Brighton or its environs tomorrow, you'll be able to hear a reading of one of the stories from the latest Tartarus anthology.

Tom Johnstone is reading 'Look for the Place Where the Ivy Rises' from Strange Tales V at Ubu Books, Brighton Open Market, Ditchling Road, at 2 pm, Saturday 13th June.

End of public service announcement!

Thursday 11 June 2015

RIP Christopher Lee

A lot of people will rightly associate Christopher Lee with Hammer Films, or Star Wars, or indeed the Lord of the Rings. But let's remember a versatile actor who played a broad range of characters, was kind and modest, and had a great voice. Here he is opposite Alan Arkin in the somewhat overlooked superhero parody, Captain Invincible.

Tuesday 9 June 2015

'N' by Stephen King

I don't mention Stephen King very often. I think he's a fine writer of supernatural horror.  but he doesn't really need my help to sell books. However, I recently happened across a novella by King that impressed me as a prime example of how a writer can pay tribute to his influences while writing an original story.

'N.' is a nested story-within-a-story concerning a psychiatrist who tries to help a patient, referred to as N in the former's notes. N is obsessive-compulsive, which means that his life is dominated by the ritualised counting of words and objects. Not surprisingly, OCD is ruining the man's life. But there is of course more to it than that, as Dr. John Bonsaint discovers. In trying to get to the root of his patient's disorder Bonsaint is infected by it.

Hammer v. Amicus

Terry Thomas? Yes, Terry Thomas.

An interesting half-hour radio documentary is available on the BBC iPlayer right now. Matthew Sweet, a knowledgeable chap, presents Houses of Horror, which looks at the success of Hammer and the way it prompted a smaller rival, Amicus, to dump the Gothic costume horror and go for something a bit more raw. Lots of interesting contributions, not least from League of Gentlemen chaps, but also from Brit horror stars.

Ingrid Pitt in The House That Dripped Blood. Guess what she's supposed to be?

It all started, apparently, because Milton Subotsky was frozen out by Hammer and created a rival production firm in a fit of pique. The result was the distinctive Amicus approach - portmanteau horror with a contemporary British setting and often using top Hammer stars like Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Ingrid Pitt. The House That Dripped Blood! Asylum! Tales from the Crypt! All very bonkers, and all great fun. Among the contributors, Stephanie Beacham is especially good value when she talks about disembodied hands that can't climb stairs and how Ian Ogilvy struggled to carry her in a wedding dress. (She was in the dress.)

Here's the link.

Alan 'Fluff' Freeman wondering about acting and stuff

Footnote - no mention of Tigon films, the neglected component of British film horror's unholy trinity. But Tigon certainly didn't lack ambition and produced a lot of watchable stuff, for my money.

Saturday 6 June 2015

Knight Moves

When I was but a humble undergraduate (at Sunderland Poly in the mid-Eighties, thank you for asking) I studied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I wrote an essay on it, which I probably can't find. But I'm glad that I'm not the only person who finds the plot a tad confusing


GREEN KNIGHT: let’s play a game
you hit me today and i’ll hit you a year from now
GAWAIN: it’s Christmas
hit me today and i’ll hit you a year and a day from now
GAWAIN: I don’t understand the rules of this game
or the prize
what is the end goal here

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Romances of the White Day: Stories in the Tradition of Arthur Machen

The three long stories in this new collection from Sarob pay tribute to Arthur Machen in part by simply reminding the reader just how complex and versatile a writer he was. The author of The Three Impostors (which provided the rough template for this book) was happy to play literary games with the reader and conjure up truly weird horrors. But he was also a nature mystic while remaining a Christian, and a man steeped in classic learning while owing a profound debt to his own Celtic heritage. Indeed, it may be easier to say what is not 'Machenesque', given the range and depth of his fiction. Fortunately that's outside my remit. So, on with the stories.

The Presence (2010)

Well, here's a supernatural horror movie I'd never heard of. Judging by its star ratings (2 on IMDb, 1 on Rotten Tomatoes) it hasn't exactly won over an audience since it was released. According to its Wikipedia entry The Presence is a 'darkly romantic ghost story'. According to one Amazon reviewer it's 'eerie and beautiful'. Indeed, one obvious disparity with its online ratings is the fact that Amazon customers seem to like it a lot more than others. 

So, what's it about? The story is very simple. A woman, played by Mira Sorvino, goes to a remote cabin on a lake island to do some unspecified work - the latter is the usual remote cabin movie stuff involving reading books and making notes. From the start, however, it's clear that the cabin is haunted. This is because we see the ghost (Shane West) standing right there in the cabin from the start, a silent, melancholy presence.

The Woman (that is the credit listing for Sorvino's character) becomes aware of a presence as doors slam shut, birds slam against the outside toilet. She also finds a newspaper cutting in a book that's been mysteriously displaced. The headline, 'Escaped Criminal Drowns', is interesting because if this were a full-on horror movie it would probably be 'Escaped Murderer/Killer'. As it is we're given a strong hint that this ghost is not malign, or at least not simplistic in his/its motives.

Things get more complicated when The Man arrives - or, more precisely, the boyfriend, played by Justin Kirk. This leads naturally enough to dialogue, and we learn that the cabin has been in the Woman's family for generations. It also emerges that she was abused by her father. Things take a strange turn when the Man proposes, she accepts, but then a cliff edge collapses and they both neary fall off, losing the ring in the process. Shortly after she grows distant and eventually they have a blazing row.

At this point the ghost realises that something strange is going. (There's a sentence I never thought I'd type.) There is a second presence. A man in black (Tony Curran) is whispering nasty things into the Woman's ear. This malign figure is a demon of sorts, and tries to recruit the Ghost to his Master's cause. The deal he offers is simple enough and the Ghost nearly goes through with it. Without too many spoilers, a very traditional denouement occurs but there's a bit of a twist.

I can see why a lot of horror fans dislike The Presence. It's quiet, with lots of lingering shots of the great outdoors and a slow-paced approach, especially in the opening scenes. Writer/director Tom Provost resorts to hardly any jump scares. The score is firmly in the 'tense but not horrific' school, with much use of woodwinds in a minor key. There's no gore and the only violent moments take place off-screen (though we do hear a truly unearthly scream). And there's a final presence that some may feel is a touch too much, not to mention a bit of a deus ex machina.

As for me, well, I watched it to the end because I wanted to see what would happen next. I think it was time well-spent, and that might be the measure of a decent movie.

Monday 1 June 2015

Horror Movie Map of the USA

I love maps and lists. I may have some sort of condition, who knows? The point is, maps combined with lists make life interesting for me, so I'm grateful to author and raconteur Steve Duffy for pointing me at this.


It's a big map with a long list, and I was intrigued to see some interesting trends emerging. Early horror movies of the Fifties were of course often shot on studio sets. Apart from that, one would expect California to do rather well and so it does. The Fog, The Lost Boys, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), The Howling, Poltergeist, and The Birds are a pretty strong hand. 

That said, though, I feel New England, considered as a whole, racks up a very impressive panoply of blood-soaked mania and general weirdness. Rhode Island, for instance, offers Dead and Buried (1981), a neglected little gem for my money. Pennsylvania does rather well, with a list featuring Night of the Living Dead, The Sixth Sense, and The Blob. 

In between I was surprised (probably due to sheer ignorance) that some states do so much better than  others. But most have something good to offer, from Them! in New Mexico to Carnival of Souls in Utah. (No horror movies in Hawaii, though. Not even Hula Zombies.)

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...