Saturday 31 October 2015

In the City of Ghosts - Review

Full disclosure - I received an inscribed copy of this book from the author, who was also kind enough to dedicate it to me. That means a lot, and I am very grateful. I only hope I can maintain a stiff upper lip in the course of this review.

The book consists of 13 stories, of which seven originally appeared in Supernatural Tales. There are also two new stories (one of novella length), one from The Silent Companion (journal of the literary society A Ghostly Company) and three from Ghosts & Scholars. And, of course, there's an excellent Paul Lowe cover.

The novella 'The Changelings' strikes me as a central piece, a summation of the author's interests and obsessions. The setting is contemporary, a London council estate where people live in soulless flats, the lifts break down, and residents rely on booze and sex to break the monotony. A group of friends, one of whom is into the occult, hold a seance. Something is conjured up and people start to disappear.

This may sound conventional, but what makes it a Chislett original is the way the everyday shades into the sensual and strange. The 'victim' of the incident has a body covered with a sort of paranormal graffiti, strange living patterns that mirror the stuff sprayed on the concrete of the estate. It becomes clear - though rather too late for Gary, the sort-of hero - that an ancient force is re-emerging on the estate and soon an entire tower block has been taken over. But by what? A nice touch here is that the tower blocks are named after poets, and it's Donne block that suffers the supernatural upheaval - Donne who had himself painted first as a distracted lover, then as a freshly-buried corpse, and who famously warned us not to send to know for whom the bell tolls.

Erudite references coupled with commentary on the turbulent, grubby and often violent history of of London distinguish most of these stories. Those that are not set in the strange district of Mabbs End are set in Milford, an area newly-gentrified but not purged of its strange perils. The first story of Mike's I published, 'The Waif', is a fairly straightforward account of a gangster who moves into a Milford riverside flat, only to encounter something even more dangerous than himself. Paul Lowe's masterly cover captures the atmosphere of the story. It's a tale of a London more dangerous than even its villains know.

If the Thames is timeless, mysterious, and fascinating, so is the city's literal underworld. 'Not Stopping At Mabbs End' plays with the idea that London's famous Tube tunnels might harbour ancient entities. Here a man discovers that his run-down local station seems to have a very busy waiting room, and that a seemingly attractive girl on the opposite platform is not what she seems.

Mabbs End is also central in 'Off the Map', a Machenesque tale of two rather whimsical, bookish friends and a very unusual edition of the London A to Z. As often happens in Chislett's fiction, a character is given a vision of the weird, numinous city that exists parallel to the one familiar to tourists and commuters. 'The True Bride', while one of the shortest tales here, offers some of the clearest exposition concerning what might be termed the London Mythos. An ordinary(?) man encounters a girl who describes her origins thus:
"The city made me... then unmade me. I say the city, but it was really the ones that devised the labyrinths. They were magicians, those ancestors. I was once a girl, just like the others. I met a witch-boy who told me of wonders, and I was changed."
Sometimes characters seek out the strange, other London, at other times they might stumble upon it, Thus in 'The Middle Park' a couple out for a Sunday stroll become entangled in a distortion of space-time, a snare set for them by beings half-glimpsed. By contrast, the girl who enters a park after closing time in 'A Name in the Dark' is seeking an arcane truth about herself. The latter is one of a story cycle featuring modern witches - an epic saga that deserves a volume of its own.

The author does venture outside London, sometimes. There's the little village in 'Held in Common', a new story that offers a spin on the old 'weird things happen in rural England' idea. (No spoilers here - it's previously unpublished!) 'The Friends of Faustina' takes us on a jaunt to Brighton, where early film enthusiasts (Fletcher and Matthews from 'Off the Map') discover that a British pioneer of cinema left a dangerous legacy. There's a lot of dark humour here, as literary buffers mingle with Goths in a very strange pub. This and several other stories combine touches of the absurd with the eerie, and in that sense fall into the tradition of 'light touch' horror exemplified by M.R. James.

There's also a rather jolly tone in three Milford stories featuring the esoteric scholar Abney Scrope. Scrope is fact dead before the tales begin, but this doesn't seem to hamper him unduly. The stories are also linked by the presence of Equanimity 'Nim' Hand, an eccentric librarian and another of Chislett's memorably offbeat characters. Nim Hand is well aware that books have a life of their own, and those who do not respect them books with titles like A Treatise on the Chewing Dead are asking for trouble. Thus in 'Deceased Effects'  an attempt to dispose of Scrope's books goes badly awry, and a similar problem arises at the Borough Library in 'Infernal Combustion', which also features a heroically dire pun. 'You'll Never Walk Alone', while tinged with humour, manages to make a serious point about the tacky activities of stage psychics.

In conclusion, this volume offers an excellent selection of Michael Chislett's work, giving a good idea of his range and talent. He is a unique voice in British weird fiction, skirting the boundaries of horror and fantasy, dabbling in folklore, offering glimpses of the weird amid wry depictions of the mundane. His is a unique voice, by turns playful and disturbing, and I hope it will be heard by many more people thanks to this handsome book.

Hallowe'en Montyfest

M.R. James is the central figure in the development of the British ghost story, influencing writers as diverse as Ramsey Campbell, Robert Westall, H.P. Lovecraft, and Susan Hill. Put another way, if Monty James hadn't existed, ghost stories and by extension modern horror fiction would be very different. So here are a few dramatised examples of his work, and works influenced by him.

We begin with the Christmas 2013 Mark Gatiss adaptation of 'The Tractate Middoth'. Time-shifted to the inter-war years, the story works well and it's good to see Monty's usual mix of scary incident and light, comedic interludes used to such good effect. Excellent cast, too.

Thursday 29 October 2015

Hallowe'en Reads - the Best of British

Everyone in the world, even people Scooby Doo onesies, are recommending ghost stories, so I might as well have a go. As it's a bit late to recommend that you zoom off and buy copies of this or that book, I've decided to link to texts that are readily available online. In some cases there are readings or dramatisations on YouTube. So, click on the title to go to the text.

Algernon Blackwood - 'Ancient Sorceries'

Blackwood's story from the case-book of the psychic detective John Silence is one of my favourite witchcraft tales, and goes way beyond the usual rigmarole. It's a must for cat-lovers and anyone who wants their story to have a sense of place as well as acute characterisation. The American radio version from the series Suspense is good for its time, but watch out for an interesting take on 'Welsh' accents.

The First Ghost Story Awards... Awarded!

Here they are - on the left is Brian Showers of The Swan River Press (Best Collection), and in the middle is D.P. Watt. (Best Story). Interesting that there's room for someone/thing on the right, too, but we can't actually see 'em...

Anyway, Brian Showers received the award for the Le Fanu tribute anthology, Dreams of Shadows and Smoke, while D.P. Watt won best story for 'Shallaballah', an M.R. James 'sequel' published in the Ghosts & Scholars newsletter. Congratulations to them both, again, and remember - as a reader of modern ghost stories you can vote for next year's winners. And here's a reminder of the rules:

You can vote for supernatural fiction published in this calendar year, 2015. Your vote must arrive by midnight on February 28th 2016.

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.

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.)

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Hallowe'en Radio Fun

I like radio shows. It's been said many times, but the best medium for suspense is audio. I'm currently enjoying the sci-fi mystery/horror series Limetown, which has a Stephen King meets Nigel Kneale vibe. And talking of Kneale, I'm looking forward to the BBC's Sunday night reboot of The Stone Tape as a radio drama.

There used to be a lot of more ghost stories and weird tales on the wireless, especially in the form of American shows produced by big networks. You can find a list that provides a good sample here. And, ahem, I have uploaded a few examples to ST's YouTube channel. (Yes, there is one.) The same channel has links to lots of radio and some TV dramas. Here is a little sampler.

Sunday 25 October 2015

M.R. James in The New Yorker

'The name of Montague Rhodes James is not widely recognized in America, and there will be little fellow-feeling for the world he chose to inhabit.'

So begins an essay by Anthony Lane, which sums up the appeal of the Jamesian ghost story rather neatly. He offers New Yorker readers a decent potted biography of MRJ and extracts from some of the most famous stories. And Robert Lloyd Parry's performances get a mention - can transatlantic fame be far behind?

I like Lane's way with words:

'What truly provoked him, and what filtered into the underground strata of the stories, was not so much misogyny as a more basic, mortal panic at gazing into the face—or, heaven preserve him, below the waist—of the unknown.'

Saturday 24 October 2015

Ghost Story Award - Awarded!

Mark Valentine sends this modern, digital daguerreotype from Nottingham, where he's just presented Brian J. Showers of Swan River Press with the GSW for an excellent Le Fanu tribute volume. Well done, Brian! And kudos to all the contributors, of course.

Stealing Sheep - Apparition

A clever little film that looks as if a very strange old postcard had come to life. The village is Turville in Bucks, apparently. More info here.

Friday 23 October 2015


This short film from BBC Earth gives a fascinating insight into Icelandic folklore. Icelanders sort-of believe that their landscape is inhabited by hundreds of trolls. They are key figures in a national story, and seem to be discussed much as soap opera characters are by urban Brits. Like fairies in rural Ireland, trolls have their places and their ways, and to cross them invites bad luck. The film is full of beautiful images of a fascinating place, and it's easy to see why the legend of the trolls took root on an island that manages to be cold and stark yet oddly welcoming.

Icelandic trolls come across as fairly pleasant, rustic types. Norwegian trolls, though, seem to be just plain badass.

Thursday 22 October 2015

A Spooky Poem, by Cardinal Cox

The Bloodless Nun

About the House wanders shade of a nun Walks straight through one solid-brick garden wall It’s six centuries since she felt the sun Tales are told of what evil had been done Winter does not force her into a shawl About the House wanders shade of a nun Seduced, ‘tis said, by squire’s wastrel son Most mournful is her circuit round the Hall It’s six centuries since she felt the sun And so through ages her doomed fate has run She once interrupted a county ball About the House wanders shade of a nun She’s seen in late mist at dawn of Whitsun And in an attic scratches a scrawl It’s six centuries since she felt the sun Sin, tears and suicide this curse began Responds to chapel bell funeral call About the House wanders shade of a nun It’s six centuries since she felt the sun

Portmanteau or Anthology? More Hallowe'en movies

I'm not sure if there's a major difference between portmanteau horror films and anthology etceteras. So far as I can make out the terms are interchangeable. The point is that I like the format - it's good to know what, as a film begins, you're going to see the work of different writers/actors/directors. So, what would be ideal Hallowe'en viewing? In no particular order, here are some memorable examples.

Dr. Terror's House of Horrors

Peter Cushing. That should be enough for you, but if not, this 1965 effort from Amicus is sure-fire beer and pizza viewing. There are far scarier films, there are far funnier films, and there are many other horror films you can make witty(?) remarks about, but for me this one has the lot. Cushing plays a strange chap who offers five train passengers a chance to see their future in his deck of Tarot cards. No prizes for guessing which card turns up quite frequently. It seems that nobody's future involves a win on the Premium Bonds. Instead we enjoy tales of werewolves, vampires, voodoo, carnivorous plants, and a disembodied hand that really annoys Christopher Lee. Written by Milton Subotsky and directed by Freddie Francis, this film never set out to be a work of art, but it shows why Amicus gave Hammer a run for their money. It's also worth watching for an early appearance by Donald Sutherland, who went on to greater things in horror.

H.P. Lovecraft's Necronomicon


Lovecraftian stuff has a patchy record in the realm of celluloid, but this is a decent stab at three stories plus a framing narrative drawing heavily on HPL's work. The story begins when Lovecraft himself (Jeffrey Combs) visits the library of a secret monastic order so he can get his hands on the You-Know-What. Predictably enough, things go awry as Lovecraft tries to cheat his way into the forbidden room etcetera. He also makes notes on three tales from the accursed volume, giving us three stories based very loosely on 'The Rats in the Walls', 'Cool Air', and 'The Whisperer in Darkness'. I wish it was a better movie. As it is, fans of Lovecraft can sit back and enjoy some good tentacles, assorted nutcases, and ominous remarks.

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Cursed Paintings - The Art of Fear!

Here's a link to an excellent article about paintings that, for whatever reason, give people the willies, or wiggins. I was surprised to find that there really are such things. Having read dozens of weird tales about haunted pictures and so forth, I'd always assumed they were just a convenient fictional device. But no, there really are paintings that upset people so much they have be hidden away.

Edwin Landseer’s 1864 “Man Proposes, God Disposes” has creeped people out since its debut with its dual polar bears scavenging at the wreckage of the ill-fated Franklin expedition to the Northwest Passage. One creature has a human rib bone rapturously clenched in its fangs; the other lunges at a scrap of fabric drenched in a blood-red color. William Michael Rossetti mourned it as the “saddest of membra disjecta.” The widowed Lady Franklin was unsurprisingly dismayed, and some even asked if Landseer, known for his noble dogs, was getting a bit unhinged.

The painting is so weird, in fact, that Royal Holloway College staff routinely drape it in a flag to stop it upsetting students. Whether it really sent a chap insane, causing him to commit suicide, is doubtful. But you can see how such a rumour might start...

Click to enlarge. If you dare...

Edwin Landseer, "Man Proposes, God Disposes" (1864), oil painting (via Wikimedia)

Thursday 15 October 2015

In the City of Ghosts

The first ever hardback collection of Michael Chislett stories has arrived! In the City of Ghosts is a splendid book from Sarob Press, and I'm not just saying this because it's dedicated to me. Yes, for only the second time in human history, an author much-published in ST has been kind enough to put my rather odd name on that priceless page. I am moved. I will of course be providing a review of the book in due course, but given the dedication and the fact that most of the stories here appeared in ST first I think it's fairly certain that I will approve.

And check out this rather splendid Paul Lowe cover. The image on the right is 'The Waif', a story from the very first issue of ST. (The left, I think, is from 'Not Stopping At Mabbs End'.) It really has been too long, but I hope this book proves the first of many Chislett volumes. The guy has an awesome amount of fiction just waiting to be collected by discerning publishers.

Sunday 11 October 2015

Hallow'en Radio!

Lest we forget, much spookiness was once heard on the wireless. It's often claimed that radio is a better medium for horror than TV because you the former engages the imagination more. I think the jury is out, but radio has the edge when it comes to atmosphere. However, radio drama has obviously been superseded by the visual media (for now), so most of the shows on this list are older than me. The latest dates from 1979.

I've heard most of 'em, and they are of course variable as to sound quality, and indeed script quality. But I particularly recommend Orson Welles in his Mercury Theatre's version of Dracula, plus Ronald Colman in The Dunwich Horror. Other classics include 'Casting the Runes', 'Carmilla', 'The Wendigo', and 'The Horla' with the great Peter Lorre. A special mention is due to 'Three Skeleton Key', a non-supernatural tale that has a simple, horrifying premise and was dramatised for radio several times.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Halllowe'en Movies

What's the best kind of Hallowe'en movie, I wonder? For me there has to be an element of traditional horror - whether it be a touch of the Gothic, a bit of ghostliness, or (in science fiction) a laboratory where things Clearly Got A Bit Out of Hand. But it's very difficult to define a rock-solid Hallowe'en film in simple terms, because sometimes the best horror jumps out at you from behind a cliché or something even more innocuous.

There are lots of obvious choices for late October viewing, and some of the best films are the most readily available, The early work of John Carpenter, the best of the early slasher movies, classic ghostly tales like The Innocents and The Haunting. So what about something a little different, perhaps as an appetiser before the main event?

1. Tucker and Dale v. Evil

This is one of those horror spoofs that de-constructs the genre in a way that's genuinely affectionate rather than smart-alecky. Tucker and Dale are just two regular country boys who go to a cabin in the woods for some fishin', beer drinkin', and general goofin' off. It's not their fault that a. the cabin seems to have had a very strange previous owner and b. some spoiled big city youngsters on vacation mistake the pals for murderous hillbillies. Wackiness ensues, and there's even a genuine horror plot propping up all the gory silliness.

Thursday 8 October 2015

Skeletons (2010)

Here's another one of those films with a supernatural theme that quite passed me by when it appeared. Skeletons stars Andrew Buckely and Ed Gaughan as two suits, Bennett and Davis, whose job consists of using a combination of natural psychic ability and esoteric gadgets to exorcise the (figurative) skeletons in other peoples' cupboards. Their boss is The Colonel (Jason Isaacs), who is considering the team for promotion. No more domestics, they could be dealing with politicians and royalty - as in the case of 'Thatcher-Mitterand'.

Unfortunately (this being drama and all) things are not going swimmingly with the team. Bennett is troubled by the way they just crash into people's lives, reveal their darkest secrets, and leave with a sheaf of forms. Davis - the one with the major talent - is a solitary weirdo obsessed with reliving one perfect moment from his childhood. When the team are detailed to try and find the lost husband of the lovely Jane Baron (Paprika Steen) things go badly awry. For a start, the Baron home is built on a corpse road, buggering up the paranormal energies. Bennett starts to fall for Jane while her daughter Rebecca (Tuppence Middleton) takes a dangerous interest in Davis' secret world.

Skeletons' writer-director Nick Whitfield does a fine job of evoking a parallel universe not too different from our own. This is world where much is made of Lord Lucan and Freddie Mercury supposedly having the same kind of moustache. Oh, and there's a happy ending.

If you're reading this a short time after posting, Skeletons can be seen on the BBC iPlayer.

'The Way Through the Woods'

THEY shut the road through the woods
Seventy years ago.
Weather and rain have undone it again,
And now you would never know
There was once a road through the woods
Before they planted the trees.
It is underneath the coppice and heath,
And the thin anemones.
Only the keeper sees
That, where the ring-dove broods,
And the badgers roll at ease,
There was once a road through the woods.

Yet, if you enter the woods
Of a summer evening late,
When the night-air cools on the trout-ringed pools
Where the otter whistles his mate,
(They fear not men in the woods,
Because they see so few.)
You will hear the beat of a horse's feet,
And the swish of a skirt in the dew,
Steadily cantering through
The misty solitudes,
As though they perfectly knew
The old lost road through the woods.
But there is no road through the woods.


For National Poetry Day

Monday 5 October 2015

Mark Gatiss Speaks!

Well, he spoke to the excellent Shadows at the Door, where you can find a substantial interview. I like interviews that cover a lot of ground, and that's certainly the case here. The obvious question, following the success of his adaptation of 'The Tractate Middoth', is whether the BBC is going to do more ghost stories for Christmas?
The only trouble is that I’d love to do it every year but they haven’t asked! (laughs) But I would love for there to be a broader field for others like Sheridan Le Fanu, who was James’ great hero, and all the people who came after him. James was the best, but it was would be nice to mix it up a bit. If only there were more of them, a Ghost Story for Christmas… Well, we could do with an anthology series really.
We could indeed. I was pleased to see that MG would like to do 'Count Magnus'. He also talks about another great writer, H.G. Wells, and I was delighted to learn that Graham Duff - another genre fan with his roots in comedy - has adapted four Wells stories for Sky.

Another point of agreement between yours truly and MG is that the sheer volume of modern horror films is a bit overwhelming. But there's no point in complaining - they're cheaper to make than most kinds of movie, and they tend to make money.

Worst Horror Films Of All Time?

Hard to believe that anyone sat through all of these, but there's a list on the internet so it must be true... And, to be honest, I like the look of some of these efforts. We all know in our heart of hearts that most horror films are forgettable, derivative tosh. So truly bad ones at least stand out in some way.

Read at your own risk. Among the choice titles on offer here are:

Thursday 1 October 2015

The Phantasmagorical Imperative: and Other Fabrications, by D.P Watt

Please note, this is a review of the pdf of a beautifully-produced book from Egaeus Press. It has a wonderful cover and copious internal illustrations, photographs, and so on. It's very much a collector's item - see below...

Phantasmagorical Imperative

(I'm not one of those collecting it, though, as I asked for a pdf to review.)

In her introduction to this collection of  strange tales Victoria Nelson notes that D,P. Watt's protagonists tend to be 'a cross between M.R. James's buttoned-down antiquarians and H.P. Lovecraft's high-strung, slightly hysterical misfits'. That's a good summation of the kind of person we encounter in this collection of somewhat surreal weird tales, which take place in a twilight zone between mainstream British horror and the Kafkaesque provinces of European literature.

The title story deftly evokes the oddness of the sort of small village that we've seen in quite a few horror films. But the theme here is not so much horror as strangeness. A sort of circus troupe arrives in a place called Werrow and puts on a show that baffles and delights Eugene Miles, or literally a well-born soldier - perhaps one who is part of the cultural mainstream, perhaps? (At once point he reads a military history by Churchill, no less.) In another story Eugene's fascination with the troupe, and one artiste in particular might have led the protagonist to join as a performer (or end up in a cage, as in a tale by J.G. Ballard). But here the conclusion is ambiguous. Nightmarish without being a gore-fest, this one lingers in the mind.

Rural rambling and British eccentricity is to the fore in 'Laudate Dominum (for many voices)', in which a walker who happens to be called Stephen Walker visits the 'Mechanical Music Museum'. His encounter with the strange curator makes for some fine, dark comedy, and the author's love of the bewildering assortment of antique machines is evident. The ending, when it comes, has been telegraphed, but not to excess. The overall effect is of Roald Dahl meeting William Sansom and having a chat about Walter de la Mare.

'By Nature's Power Enshrined' is an interesting departure, thanks to its Victorian setting and the fact that its protagonist is not an eccentric loner. Albert runs a photographic business in Maidstone and struggles to support his wife, Isabelle, and their children. The origin of photography is fascinating subject in itself, and perhaps the most poignant use of the new art-form/technology was in portraiture of the terminally ill. (The practice continued well into the 20th century. Admirers of Nigel Kneale will recall his story 'The Picture', in which a little boy taken from his sick bed to be photographed.) Watt rings the changes on this idea with great skill, as Albert discovers that he can heal the sick. But such power, inevitably, comes as a price. 

'Holzwege' is another historical story, but deals with a very different world. It concerns three young Brownshirts in what seems to be Weimar Germany just before the Nazis seized absolute power. Watt follows his anti-heroes of the SA across country until, lost in a forest, they encounter what may be the Fates or Norns. Probably not vampires, anyway. My grasp of the relevant mythology is a bit feeble, to be honest. This is a poetic, disturbing tale, in which advocates of a cod-Nordic culture based on so-called Aryan myth are destroyed by very potent manifestations of the real thing. The truth is revealed to them, and it even sets them free in its very old-fashioned way.

So, in spring, as the snows receded and revealed the bodies, the forest creatures emerged - beatific vermin - and picked their bones clean of fleshy sin. 
We move on a few decades in European history for 'Dehiscence', a novella, A man is caught up in the chaos of post-WW2 Europe opens a junk shop in Krakow, an establishment in which he offers any old tat for sale. Far from losing money, he becomes wealthy thanks to crass touristic impulses. Driven out by a brutal landlord, he is left wandering with nothing more than a trunk, A series of vignettes, each one springing from the description of a particular wild flower, reveal more about his life and times. It's engaging, but reads more like notes towards a story rather than a story in itself.

The above are, I think, the most compelling of the stories on offer, but I'll probably change my mind if I read the book again. Suffice to say that D.P. Watt is an interesting and original voice, and proof that what we casually term horror is a very broad (and somewhat ornate) church these days.

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...