Saturday 28 November 2015

HWA Bram Stoker Award

The reading list for the Bram Stoker Award in the Short Fiction category includes two stories from ST#30. They are 'Even Clean Hands Can Do Damage' by Steve Duffy, and '30' by Helen Grant.

I am very pleased that two excellent authors are in the running for an award because I think good writers deserve publicity. Oh, and I hope lots of people buy the magazine, of course. It's interesting to note that, while both stories are very traditional in some regards, they also manage to be genuinely original in some important respects. They're also very different in tone, with Helen's story somewhat playful and knowing (almost the very end) while Steve's is more sombre, as befits the subject matter.

If you feel the urge to peruse those excellent tales, you can find it in print and ebook from here. Go on, get stuck in - it's quite cheap and a good read.

Cover art by Sam Dawson

Tuesday 24 November 2015

The Wicker Man and the Lambton Worm

One of the first tales of weird fiction I learned wasn't from the pages of Edgar Allan Poe or M.R. James, but from English medieval history. Where I grew up in Sunderland one of the few local legends - perhaps the only one of note - is that of full-on monster v. hero action.

The Lambton Worm is a ballad that tells a familiar tale. A foolish person makes a blunder that unleashes a dangerous entity upon an unsuspecting world. Well, County Durham, anyway. The worm in question starts of small, gets bigger, and eventually becomes a major nuisance that can't be killed by regular warriors. So a hero arises and - thanks to advice from a witch, no less - kills the monster. Unfortunately, the witch's bargain brings a curse upon the hero's line...

If you want to read the story, the traditional ballad is here. There are some interesting twists, not least the fact that young John Lambton, the hero, is also the twit who unleashes the worm in the first place. But what's all this got to do with The Wicker Man? Well...

In this article you can read about the way in which Peter Schaffer wanted to follow The Wicker Man with a story involving the Lambton Worm. It's bizarre stuff, to say the least. I mean, who would really buy into this as a starting point?
Laden with heavy use of special effects, the story would open with a group of officers from the mainland arriving at the eleventh hour, just in time to rescue Neil Howie from being roasted within the belly of the wicker man. Upon his rescue, Howie sets about pursuing Lord Summerisle, who must be brought to justice for his horrific actions.
Well, okay, maybe they could make that work. (But why would officers from the mainland assume anything was wrong?) Anyway, what follows is weird indeed:
This ending, of course, would have seen Sergeant Howie engaged in a Saint George-style battle with the Lambton Worm itself, to be followed by a clash between spiritual world views: Howie’s faith in the Christian God set against the old gods of Summerisle’s pagan belief.
Crikey. Probably just as well it wasn't made. Especially since Ken Russell had, by that stage, already based a film on the same story, albeit filtered through Bram Stoker's novel Lair of the White Worm. And that's a good excuse to show Hugh Grant symbolically slaying the not-so-legendary 'D'Ampton Worm'.

Thursday 19 November 2015

Punctuation, People

Oh, Monty - you and your promiscuous young people. Why couldn't you just write about genteel scholars looking for old books 'n' that?

Gleaned this online, so I'm not sure of the source, but it looks (and reads) like the dear old Grauniad.

Lego Hell!

Yes, Lego Hell. Or, more precisely, a young Romanian artist's interpretation of Dante's Inferno, as rendered in Lego. It's strong stuff, though I think he missed a trick in not having some group of offenders (old drunks going to the bathroom in the dark, perhaps?) fated to step on Lego bricks in bear feet - forever!
III. GLUTTONY 'The circle itself is a living abomination, a hellish digestive system revealing horrific faces with mouths ready to devour the gluttons over and over for eternity.'
Gluttony - a high-protein zone
VI. HERESY 'The giant demon watches closely over his fire pit, dwarfing the damned that are dragging the new arrivals in the boiling lava. Those who committed the greatest sins against God are getting a special treatment inside the temple where they are doomed to burn for eternity in the scorching flames.'
Heresy - God just doesn't like your opinion, dude

I. LIMBO 'A place of monotony, here the souls are punished to wander in restless existence while they moan helplessly in echoes between the ruins of a temple.'
Limbo - where's the bar?

Friday 13 November 2015

Across the River (2013)

This Italian movie was recommended to me by author Steve Duffy, and - as usual - he was right. It's a simple horror flick that exploits, but doesn't depend upon, the found footage approach. It's one of those films that manages to achieve all it sets out to do - create disturbing world of shadows, mystery, and terror within a fairly familiar landscape.

The premise of Across the River is very simple. A naturalist (Renzo Gariup) sets out to conduct a wildlife survey in northern Italy, near the Slovenian border. He drives an RV into a fairly desolate, hilly, forested region and sets up night vision cameras to monitor deer, wild boar, and other fauna. He also captures a fox and attaches to it a camera plus GPS tracker. He watches as the fox ventures into a deserted village, not marked on his map, where it is attacked by an unseen beast. His curiosity piqued, he ventures across the river.

Most of the film is set in the lost village, which is a character in itself. The scientist becomes aware that some large predator, or predators, are at work. He finds relics that hint at some untoward events many decades ago. At first he seems safe enough, as he's secure in his vehicle and has the equipment, and skills, to survive in the wild. And, after all, this is Western Europe. But writer-director Lorenzo Bianchini deftly deprives his protagonist of everything that keeps him warm and safe. The naturalist realises that he has become nothing more than another prey animal.

Meanwhile, an elderly couple living nearby are kept awake by strange cries in the night. When the authorities become concerned about the missing expert, the husband tries to alert them to the menace that haunts the village and the woods that surround it. This involves, perhaps inevitably, old film footage that reveals just enough about the nature of the threat. Those who like a big chunk of exposition may be disappointed, of course.

This is a quiet film for much of its length, with an emphasis on often beautiful images of wild country. It's also a damp film - torrential rain traps the naturalist by raising the river level, and dripping water keeps him awake. Thus the powers of Nature - often deadly but never malign - are set alongside the threat from a paranormal intelligence. One with very sharp claws.

Tuesday 10 November 2015

Supernatural Tales 31

Coming soon! An issue literally packed with supernatural fiction, because that's what it's for, really. 

Here are the contents:

'Deletion' by Stephen McQuiggan
A man with a bad reputation in a small town finds himself the focus of unwanted attention. But why do so many people have trouble remembering his name?

'Before the Days of the Urban Fox' by Malcolm Laughton
'Suddenly Alyn looked back at the wall. A creature sat atop it—exactly where the dog stared. It was man-shaped, and it murmured and murmured.'

'Krogh's Remains' by C.M. Muller
Bereavement drives a woman to seek out a lost uncle, but he proves elusive. His obsession with books, on the other hand, is all too evident...

'What I Found in the Shed' by Tom Johnstone
'It had that strange, half-human, keening quality. But I knew it was a baby.'

'In Loco Mortis' by Mike Chinn
'What’s your name, by the way? I may have known once—but that’s something else I seem to have forgotten. No brain: no memory.'

'Exit Stage Left' by Jane Jakeman
Ugly Hell, gape not! Come not, Lucifer!
I’ll burn my books!

'The Sound of Children Playing' by Tim Foley
Schools are closed when there are too few children in the district to justify keeping them open. That makes sense. But things could have been very different. 

'Retro Night' by James Everington 
Middle-aged? Frustrated? Hoping to recapture your lost youth? Well, this is the night for you...

The print-on-demand version of the magazine is now available here, along with many earlier issues. 

Ebooks update.

Here's the link to the US Kindle version.

Here's the link to the UK Kindle version.

Monday 9 November 2015

Malevolent Visitants! News from Sarob Press

Sarob Press has announced a new title, and it's a doozy. Malevolent Visitants will be a new collection of stories by C.E. Ward, one of the best writers of the traditional ghostly tale. Clive Ward's fiction appeared regularly in Ghosts & Scholars magazine during the Nineties and he established himself as a direct descendant of M.R. James thanks to his style and erudition. His tales of the supernatural offer erudition, humour, and chills in roughly equal proportion. I'm a fan, in case you hadn't guessed.

As you can see from Paul Lowe's covert art, Clive's work tends to focus on rural and historical themes. The bloody heritage of England crops up in various forms in his first two collections, Vengeful Ghosts, and Seven Ghosts & One Other (both published by Sarob, and long out of print).

Here's some more information from the Sarob announcement:
Be prepared for a restless night when every small sound will have you staring into the deeply shadowed corners hoping not to see any of the terrors darkly lurking within the pages of this book emerging to take their vengeance on the unsuspecting reader. 
The stories: “At Dusk” “The Mound” “Merfield Hall” “The Return” “Squire Thorneycroft*” “One over the Twelve” “The House of Wonders*” & “The Gift” Includes an “Afterword by the author”
*previously unpublished

I suspect this edition will be sold out in a matter of days.

Thursday 5 November 2015

November Nunkie!

Last night my old friend Mike and I went to the Lit and Phil in Newcastle to hear Robert Lloyd Parry of Nunkie Theatre perform 'A Pleasing Terror', one of his now extensive repertoire of shows based on the works of M.R. James. Last night's show featured 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-book' and 'The Mezzotint', but during this autumn/winter tour Rob is doing other stories, among them 'Casting the Runes' and 'A Warning to the Curious' - it depends on the venue.

Rob played to a packed house, having built up a considerable following over the last few years. He was always a confident performer, of course, but his mastery of his material was never more apparent than last night. He switched from humour to horror and back with great aplomb, drawing attention to the way in which Dr. James made those two effects complementary, rather than contradictory. (I should emphasise again that these are performances of the stories, not simply readings. RLP uses MRJ's words, adjusted and slightly trimmed for dramatic effect.)

If you get a chance to catch a Nunkie show, take it! As many have remarked, this is as near as you'll get to hearing Monty himself.

Monday 2 November 2015

The Kibbo Kift - Mystic Folksy Weirdness

An interesting Guardian article looks at a British political movement that's almost forgotten, yet produced some of the most striking ideas and images of its time. The Kindred of the Kibbo Kift was formed after the Great War to revitalise an exhausted, demoralised nation and - by extension - the entire world. Its founder, artist John Hargrave, styled himself White Fox and exhorted people to go camping, learn craft skills, and breed superior beings. If that sounds a bit proto-Nazi, well, associated groups in Germany were assimilated by the National Socialists. But to be fair to Hargrave, he seems to have been equally opposed to communism and fascism, eventually forming his own 'Green Shirts' and arguing for peaceful coexistence and a world government. That rational, if highly idealistic, objective was married to some quasi-mystical notions.
'Hargrave held that the postwar reconstruction was doomed “because the rulers have not the courage to abandon the mechanical civilised slavery which by an unseen course brought about the war”. His solution was to build up an elite group that, taking the woodcraft elements from the Scouts, was designed to be a complete fusion of aesthetics, politics and spirituality that would use the visual “as a form of magical persuasion”.'
Hence the emphasis on gatherings where members dressed as spirit animals - like White Fox, seen below centre - and engaged in rituals that might be mistaken for something sinister. But probably weren't. By the way, that term 'mechanical civilised slavery' recalls Robert Aickman's world view to me. Maybe he encountered the Kibbo Kift? Or perhaps such notions were simply in the air at the time.

'Just as their spiritual beliefs and rituals took from a grab bag of late-19th and early 20th-century occult and gnostic thought, so their aesthetic took from Anglo-Saxon, Spartan, Celtic, Egyptian, Indian and native English mythology.'

Sunday 1 November 2015

It Follows (2014)

This American horror movie may have slipped by some folk, which is a pity. It's an excellent reworking of a familiar theme - one used in at least two classics of the genre and quite a few lesser movies.

It Follows is the story of Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenager enjoying her summer who goes out on what becomes a very bad date. She is drugged and strapped to a wheelchair, then confronted with what she is assured is a shape-shifting entity that is going to kill her, if it catches her. The twist is that the thing, which only its 'targets' can see, can only move at a walking pace. In theory, you can always stay one step ahead. In practice...

As in Night of the Demon, the very first sequence in the film has already shown us that something truly disturbing is going on. So the film wastes relatively little time on the notion that Jay is crazy or the victim of a sick prank. Instead she and her friends try to find out what they're up against and how to evade or defeat it. It's a simple film, in fact, and certainly doesn't outstay it's welcome. But it's also subtle, intelligent, and notably devoid of knowing winks at the audience. There are a few references to landmark movies, though, particularly a swimming pool sequence that recalls Cat People.

The malign entity itself is novel in that it takes on the form of people (real or imagined) of significance to its victim. Thus is ranges in appearance from close relative to childhood bogeyman, hitting all stops in between. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell drives home the need for constant vigilance and evasion with a series of simple panning shots showing figures in the middle distance walking towards the camera. Any one of them can be the Whatever-It-Is.

The soundtrack is reminiscent of early John Carpenter channelling prog rock (there's an interview with composer Rich Vreeland here), and there is an odd Seventies vibe about It Follows. Not once does anyone consult the internet, yet we're in no doubt that this is today's America - people have e-readers. The emphasis is on physical action - get in the car and just drive! - because nobody has enough time to think. Oh, and the first lesson Jay learns is never to go into a place that has just the one exit.

For a film with plenty of genuine shocks, It Follows is not flashy or even particularly loud. Jay and her pals may be the least wisecrack-prone group of teens in horror movie history, and this makes them believable and likeable. A young cast portray kids who've been struggling with the concept of adulthood confronted by something far worse. There's a central premise in the film that I won't give away, but it makes the idea of passing on the curse (if that's what it is) morally problematic. Oh, and the ending will annoy some, but seemed just right to me.

ATARASHII GAKKO! - HANAKO (Official Music Video)

'Hanako of the Toilet' is a famous Japanese urban myth of a girl ghost that haunts... well, you can work it out for yourself.  (I th...