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Showing posts from 2016

Inside No. 9

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The Christmas special that heralds a new series of this darkly inventive comedy series sees Steve Pemberton and Reece Sheersmith having fun with the television of their youth. You really had to be there to appreciate how well they reproduce the studio-bound, videotaped, time-limited nature of most British TV drama. It is a labour of somewhat twisted love to take the audience back to 1977 in every conceivable way, and they certainly succeed. The story, 'The Devil of Christmas', concerns Krampus, the satanic being who supposedly comes to whisk away unruly children in the Austrian Tyrol. Of course it's just a silly story. But why does the picture of Krampus on the chalet wall have such compelling eyes...? And who is responsible for strange nocturnal antics that terrify the British visitors' young son? In the hands of Shearsmith and Pemberton this could have been a rather nifty supernatural comedy-drama, But instead it's something altogether stranger, as  after a

Yuletide Ghosts

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As I'm offlline over the Christmas weekend I thought I would add a few ghostly readings and such, some new, some familiar. Compliments of the season to you all - Merry Christmas!

TLS praises tale from ST

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If you click and enlarge this scan you will see a review of Best British Short Stories. 'Vain Shadows Flee', originally published in issue 30, is singled out for particular praise. Well done Mark, and indeed well done Nicholas Royle for selecting it.

Ghosts on the Nog

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Having experienced both sides of Christmas, there is but one constant I am aware of that serves you well both in the merriest of times and in the darkest: the classic English Christmas ghost story. You’d think Halloween would be the holiday that elicits the best macabre stories, but you’re going to want to check that opinion and get more on the Snow Miser side of the equation. Time was the English loved to scare you out of your mind come December, but in a fun way that resulted in stories well afield of your typical ghost story outing. I think most of us would agree with that sentiment, expressed in this interesting Paris Review  item . It lists five seasonal  ghost stories that are not well-known outside the realm of the true enthusiast. Of them I think Burrage's 'Smee' is probably the best. (It has nothing to do with Peter Pan.) Blackwood's 'The Kit-Bag' is another excellent specimen, a tad predictable but that's not a bad thing if you're trying to h

The Devil of Christmas

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'Inside No 9: The Devil of Christmas' is on BBC2 at 10pm on Tuesday 27th December. I'm sure it will be on the BBC iPlayer for non-Brits. h/t Steve Duffy for drawing my attention to this spiffing poster.

'Night in the Pink House'

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In this story from his new collection Charles Wilkinson continues to play with genre expectations and style. Told in the first person, this is the story of a rather dapper young man called Topcliffe who obtains an unusual post with a wealthy, blind eccentric. History buffs may recognise the name Topcliffe as one a famous torturer in Tudor times. The employer is obsessed with torture, and requires his new servant to provide taped evidence of the agony he has put young women through. Topcliffe provides this evidence, albeit by perfectly legal means. All of which might be the setup for a fairly conventional horror story. But instead of ending in a bloodbath, the story explores the odd by-roads of symbolism and psychology. The title refers to the fact that the rich man's seaside home is literally filled with blood, and that Topcliffe is merely the latest in a long line of 'house torturers' to have been employed. Even better, the framing narrative makes it clear that, having f

This Spectacular Darkness - Part 2.

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In my first part of this staggered review of Joel Lane's non-fiction I pointed out how enjoyable it is to read a good critic discuss a writer I know little about. I move on now to Joel Lane's essays on two authors I am more familiar with. Firstly, Fritz Leiber. Lane rightly holds Leiber in high esteem, pointing out that his ability to write first rate science fiction, fantasy, and horror went hand in hand with a remarkably original approach. Leiber was the 'master of literary modernism' in the genre, transcending his pulp origins. Leiber was a poser of questions, and seldom offered definitive answers. I was surprised to find that there were still quite a few Leiber stories I have no read, which is heartening. But, not surprisingly Lane focuses on the better known tales and novels, such as Our Lady of Darkness, 'Smoke Ghost', 'The Girl With Hungry Eyes', and 'A Bit of the Dark World'. Again and again Leiber found new ways to present the re

'In His Grandmother's Coat'

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In this story a mother worries about her son. It's more complicated than that, of course, and I'm not sure I entirely understand it.  Angela has recently lost a baby. Her mother-in-law left her home to Angela's surviving son, Wyll. When the boy discovers strange carvings under the floorboards in what was his grandmother's bedroom, he is put in touch with something. The mysterious something is connected to the old woman's bizarre experiments in breeding mink, of all things. The image of a strange, feral, furry creature recurs through the story. It is a tale of not one but two unreliable narrators, as neither Angela nor Wyll seem to have a very tight grasp on reality.  A strange one, this, and again an example of Charles Wilkinson exploring rural rather than urban horror, but in a way that has nothing nostalgic or 'quaint' about it. It is arguably a tale of witchcraft and/or madness, somewhat reminiscent of Nigel Kneale's 'Baby'. The possibl

'Line of Fire'

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This story from A Twist in the Eye  takes the old ghost story premise of the man who inherits a house from a distant relative. Instead of a conventional haunting, though, the protagonist is faced with a strange situation in a far-from-normal community. Why are the locals dead set against him? Why do all of them seem to have a cataract in one eye? And why does the lawyer who dealt with his cousin's will refuse to simply admit that the old woman is dead? There's a distinct whiff of the League of Gentlemen about the grotesque denizens of the small town. The bizarre, nightmarish developments kept me guessing, not least the question of a plaque that's been removed from the house in question. It begins conventionally, with a man catching sight of out-of-place figures from a bus. It ends with an authorial flourish, and is a bit postmodern. All in all it's an assured performance, slightly reminiscent of Terry Lamsley.

Shirley Jackson - Observer Item

Horror fiction was once shunned by 'serious' newspapers, but things have changed a bit in recent years. In this article Shirley Jackson's son talks about the recent upsurge of interest in his mother's life and work. People, he says, often ask him how she could both write a story as dark as, say, The Lottery, in which a woman ends up being ritually stoned to death by her neighbours (it was first published in the New Yorker in 1948), and the light-hearted magazine pieces she produced to support her family. “But I don’t find that strange at all. The answer is abundantly simple. That’s what fiction is. She was a writer, and a good one can use a variety of styles.”

'The Glamour of the Snow'

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An Algernon Blackwood story for the festive season, set in an atmospheric Switzerland. As usual, it's not so much a tale of horror as of awe, with the suggestion that the mysterious entity is not so much evil as simply Other. Anyway, see what you think.

'Hidden in the Alphabet'

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The third story in Charles Wilkinson's A Twist in the Eye is a cracker, though not in the Yuletide sense. Told in the first person, it recounts the misadventures of a film director whose use of his own son in a notorious film ruined the young man's life. The director returns to England for a reconciliation with his son, at the instigation of his niece, who also starred in his masterpiece. But an accident outside his hotel forces the myopic director to seek out an optician when his glasses are broken. The accident is witnessed by a pigeon, whose somewhat limited intellectual perspective still offers a hint that All Is Not Quite As It Seems. This is playful stuff, as is the fact that the hotel is called the Acme, recalling the violent antics of Wile E. Coyote. And there is something of the grotesque and cartoonish about the fate of the director, a kind of Grand Guignol with ophthalmology. In a way this is Wilkinson's tribute to Poe, but I'll say no more for fear of c

The Once and Future Tourist Attraction

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Last year I went up Glastonbury Tor, which is near the town of Glastonbury. Logic. It's supposed to be the burial place of King Arthur, but I found no evidence of this. Admittedly I didn't look very hard, but I feel my non-discoveries were conclusive. He's either not there, or he's very well hidden. Anyway, the article I've linked to gives a bit of background. Just because Arthur isn't there doesn't mean it's not fascinating. The sides of the Tor have seven deep, roughly symmetrical terraces. Their formation remains a mystery with many possible explanations. One explanation is that they may have been formed as a result of natural differentiation between the layers of lias stone and clay used by farmers during the Middle Ages as terraced hills to make ploughing for crops easier. Other explanations suggested construction of defensive ramparts. Iron Age hill forts including the nearby Cadbury Castle in Somerset show evidence of extensive fortificat

'The Human Cosmos'

The second story in Charles Wilkinson's collection A Twist in the Eye concerns Jim, who runs a small business in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter. Nothing could be more prosaic, but Jim's problems rapidly become the stuff of surreal nightmare. At first he can find the deeds to the flat he's just moved into. Then he catches glimpses of a strange, hairless man who seems to be interested in him, but who he never happens to meet. Meanwhile, Jim's thoughts dwell on a personal project, the creation of a tiny golden figure of a man. The story is unusual in that, while it uses some of the conventions of the ghost/horror story, it derives its imagery from the Swedenborgian cult, which also influence Le Fanu. Apparently Swedenborg taught that the cosmos is shaped like a man, and that humans are angels in embryo. Both of those ideas seem more weird than horrific, but Wilkinson uses them to wrench his protagonist out of the mundane and into, well, somewhere else. I won't s

A Twist in the Eye - 'Returning'

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As well as the new book of Joel Lane's non-fiction (see below) I am the lucky recipient of a new collection of stories by Charles Wilkinson, Thanks to Egaeus Press for this review copy of A Twist in the Eye , which is a beautiful book. I need hardly say that I'm a fan of the author's work, as two of the stories included here previously appeared in ST. So, without further ado, let us commence one of my almost-popular running reviews. Like most of Wilkinson's fiction, 'Returning' is a low-key, apparently simple affair. An older married couple, Terence and Josie, go on holiday to the same seaside town each year. Their lives, to a casual observer, might seem dull and bounded by timid respectability. But Terence's love for Josie and his sense of impotence as she gradually dies from an unnamed illness is all the more painful for being so understated. The supernatural element is a spectre of the living, a quasi-doppleganger, that Terence sees during his last

This Spectacular Darkness - Review Begins

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A book of critical essays is a volume to dip into, so in writing about this Tartarus collection of Joel Lane's non-fiction I will be jumping about all over the place and coming back to it over the coming days and weeks. I hope this won't seem too bitty. One of the marks of a good critic is that they make you want to read authors you are unfamiliar with. This is certainly true of Joel Lane's assessment of Cornell Woolrich. 'The Dark Houses of Cornell Woolrich' is thoughtful, lively, and often funny. Thus Lane ends a paragraph on the 1950 novel Savage Bride by saying, 'If any reader feels compelled to revive this novel as a 'lost pulp classic', I have one suggestion: don't.' Woolrich was clearly a Man With Problems who often wrote quite badly, but after reading this essay I don't think I'll be able to resist buying at least one of his books. Another virtue in a good critic is to remind you of authors you really should have read more,

RIP Peter Vaughan

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To those of us who grew up watching British TV in the Seventies Peter Vaughan was one of those actors you instantly recognised. He had a remarkable, lived-in look, and could play almost any kind of character with great aplomb. I don't think I ever saw him miscast. But there were three roles that defined him for me. Two were in comedies. He played a grumpy, lower middle-class conservative in Citizen Smith, opposite Robert Lindsay's young revolutionary. He was even better as Genial Harry Grout, the gangster overlord of Slade Prison in the Ronnie Barker sitcom Porridge. In both roles Vaughan showed a natural flair for comedy, always just on the right side of realism, never quite making either character a simple grotesque. But, for fans of supernatural fiction, his best role was in the classic Christmas ghost story 'A Warning to the Curious', arguably the best of the Lawrence Gordon Clark adaptions of M.R. James tales. He was one of those actors who lifted the spirits,

This Spectacular Darkness

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Tartarus Press is publishing a collection of critical essays by the late Joel Lane. The title of the book comes from a piece published in ST. Joel was a great supporter of the magazine in its early years and contributed several stories. He was a very modest man, but I don't think he'd mind me saying that his interest gave the young ST some kudos it would otherwise have lacked. Contents: 'Foreword’ by Mark Valentine, ‘Acknowledgments’, Critical Essays for Wormwood by Joel Lane: ‘The Dark Houses of Cornell Woolrich’, ‘The October Revolution: Ray Bradbury’s Existential Paradigm for the Horror Genre’, ‘The Territory of the Others: The Dark Fiction of Theodore Sturgeon’, ‘No Secret Place: The Haunted Cities of Fritz Leiber’, ‘Ruins of Time: The Mortal Terrors of Harlan Ellison’, ‘The Ruins of Reality: Thomas Ligotti and the Uses of Disenchantment’, ‘World Gone Wrong: H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythology of Loss’, ‘Forever Always Ends: Robert Aickman’s Visions of Afterlife’. Other Cri

'The Devil of Christmas' - Inside No. 9

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The splendid comedy/horror series returns for a third outing, and begins with a Christmas special airing on Tuesday, December 27th. This sounds rather wonderful.  And yes, that is Rula Lenska on the left. It is Austria, Krampusnacht, December 1977. Julian Devonshire, his pregnant wife Kathy, their son Toby and mother in law Celia arrive at the alpine chalet for a family holiday. They are shown around by Klaus who tells the family about the local legend of The Devil of Christmas. All the good children are given gifts by St. Nicholas, and all the bad ones are punished by the demonic Krampus. But who has been good, and who has been bad?

'The Moonlit Road'

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I've probably posted this before but it's a great story, a dramatisation of one of the best supernatural tales by that master of cruel ambiguities, Ambrose Bierce. It's on my YouTube channel, where you will find various things.

Psychic Pheasant George - A Nation Mourns

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That's one less psychic pheasant in a world that desperately needs hope. Sad.

Horror Stories (including a couple of mine)

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Here is a collection of stories from Scare Street that seems to be free on Kindle at the moment, and is quite reasonably priced in paperback. Ideal Christmas present for those difficult cousins, aunties, between-maids, that sort of thing. There are two stories by me in it. One, 'Urbex', is a short but nonetheless repellent item set in modern Britain, or under it. Some people meet in a pub and then go and do something silly. It's that realistic. The other story, 'The Sin Eater', is set in rural England in Victorian times and concerns a strange ritual that the squire disapproves of but the vicar tolerates. Anyway, it's a book, and its here .

Inside No. 9 returns!

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Yes, those wacky dudes Steve Pembertson and Reece Shearsmith are bringing another season of strangeness to our telescreens. What's more, the first episode of the third season/series of Inside No. 9 is a Christmas special... The new episode due to be broadcast this December is titled The Devil Of Christmas, which stars Rula Lenska and Jessica Raine alongside Shearsmith and Pemberton. First revealed earlier this year at the Starburst Film Festival, the episode is set around an alpine chalet and involves the horned "half-goat, half-demon" Krampus character from Austro-Bavarian folklore. Set in 1978, it has been filmed by the production team using old 1970s filming equipment as a homage to the era. It's a bit of playful 1970s comedy/horror with Rula Lenska in it. That's how you do it. The other five episodes from Series 3 are then expected to be shown on BBC Two in early 2017 . Settings include a restaurant after closing time and an art gallery. As previousl

Update on Channel Zero

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The first Channel Zero serial, Candle Cove, is currently running on the UK's Channel 5. No jokes about that, now. It's available free on demand via the My5 site, here . Having watched the first two episodes, I find it pretty good so far. 1. It's a lot darker than I thought. Child murder is never exactly a jolly subject, but this is small town America at its most peculiar and disturbing. 2. Impressive casting and production values - not lavish, but technically well up to par. 3. No idea how much of the craziness is in the protagonist's head. It's an old trick, yes, but we are given plenty of hints that something other than a mental breakdown is going on, here.

Marrying Ghosts

I give it six months. Or eternity. Whichever seems longer. I mean, you marry a dead person, you've got nothing in common, they want to stay in all the time, there's no conversation. Cold feet in the middle of your back at bedtime. Brrr. Anyway, here's an item about the surprisingly widespread practice of marrying the dead. Posthumous marriage—that is, nuptials in which one or both members of the couple are dead—is an established practice in China, Japan, Sudan, France, and even the United States, among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The procedural and legal nuances of each approach vary wildly between cultures, but here is an overview of how to tie the knot with someone who isn’t quite alive...

Reader Poll - Issue 33

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Yes, it's time for you to cast your vote for the best story in the last issue. As you can see, we have a panoply of talent, ranging from ST veterans to newcomers. The poll runs until just before Christmas, which is disturbingly near. So, read the stories and vote! Winner receives the almost unimaginable sum of £25, which used to be a lot of money.

The Singing Ringing Tree - Disturbing Tales from Europe

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Someone in the comments for the previous entry mention this 1970s TV series. Well, I'm old enough to remember it, and it was indeed a disturbing piece of work. It also has interesting origins. Over to you, Mr Google,.. The Singing Ringing Tree ( German : Das singende, klingende Bäumchen) was a children's film made by East German studio DEFA in 1957 and shown in the form of a television series by the BBC. It was a story in the style of the Brothers Grimm , directed by Francesco Stefani . It was quite lavish stuff by Eastern Bloc standards. But what made it stand out in the BBC's 'Tales from Europe' strand for kiddies was that every other scene contained something striking and/or disturbing. I mean, this is one of the less weird bits. Checkout that goldfish. Flippin' 'eck. Here's a Telegraph article on the DVD release. Yes, there is one... The BBC's reliance on Continental and, particularly, Eastern European children's drama came about

Channel Zero

A hat-tip to author Steve Duffy for this one, a new TV series on SyFy. Each season of Channel Zero features a six-part, self-contained story. The first stars Paul Schneider (Mark in the first season of Parks & Recreation) and British thesp Fiona Shaw. Here is the synopsis of the first story, 'Candle Cove'. What happened to Mike Painter's twin brother back in the summer of 1988? How is his death connected to Candle Cove, a children's show which no one seems to remember, and exists only as a whisper of a memory in Mike's mind? And how are they connected to a mysterious child made of human teeth? A mysterious child made of human teeth? I'm in! The premise of the story is that a small group of people remember a creepy children's puppet show called Candle Cove. It seems to have a very disturbing effect on anyone who sees it. Thus television is made from television. It's a natural progression from the old days when ghost stories were often based on r

Folklore Thursday - The Bunyip

Folklore Thursday is an Internet Thing, but even old codgers like me can get into it. The idea is to spread some folklore about the place in the form of links on Twitter etc. The actual site is here , as is an item about the Bunyip, a mysterious mythical beast from Down Under. Eye-witnesses claimed the Bunyip was like a forty-five foot long snake or a type of alligator or covered in grey feathers. Evidence of the Bunyip was hard to find but in 1847 a Bunyip skull was exhibited in the Sydney Museum and thousands flocked to view it. Although, the skull has now been substantiated as the remains of a deformed foal or calf.  I heard about the Bunyip as a youngster, perhaps because it featured in quite a few Australian TV series and films show in Britain. It's an interesting example of a mythical beast that was considered to be real by many people for years in the 'modern' era. As a swamp monster with snakey tendencies it seems to be a distant cousin of that much-loved Victor

Donald Pleasence as Carnacki

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For those who don't know, Donald Pleasence (1919-95) was a British actor whose career spanned several decades and who appeared in a wide range of films and TV shows. One of his first major roles was as Syme, the Newspeak expert, in Nigel Kneale's BBC adaptation of Orwell's  Nineteen Eighty-Four . In the Sixties Pleasence played Blofeld opposite Sean Connery's James Bond in You Only Live Twice. But he was best known for horror movie roles, such as Dr. Sam Loomis in the Halloween series. Anyway, here he is in a British TV adaptation of one of William Hope Hodgson's Carnacki stories, 'The Horse of the Invisible'. It's part of a fascinating series of stand-alone dramas entitled The Rivals of Sherlock Homes. Like most supernatural drama of the period it's long on acting talent and short on visual effects, and some may find the conclusion a tad risible. But I think it's worth it to see a fine actor bring his talents to the role of a major figure in w

'Rolf'

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I've come to the end of The Girl with the Peacock Harp by Michael Eisle. and a very impressive debut collection it is. The final story has a classic setup, in which an old beggar asks to share the fire of a group of apprentice stonemasons. Rolf is a garrulous old chap and, in return for warmth and some good ale, he offers to repay his young hosts with a story. The tale he tells is of a talented young mason, not unlike his hosts, who was too ambitious. As a result he found himself with an unusual patron, and ended up facing a terrible ethical dilemma. Again, then, we have the theme of the gifted, creative, or otherwise exceptional outsider. This is Eisele country, exploring the world of the nomad, the genius, the misfit through the medium of weird fiction. The widely-travelled author's fascination with unusual and marginal characters shines through, as does his compassion. I ought to add that the title of this volume is taken not from a story but from a short narrative po

'Died in House'

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"Larry? About that plot twist..." A website has been created so that people can look up their address and find out how many people have died there. The website is called Diedinhouse.com and uses information from news announcements, death certificates and police records to identify whether or not one or more people have died at an address. 

'The Change'

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'The change came as he was sleeping. There was barely time to prepare himself as the pain ripped through him, his muscles rippling and knotting and every joint in his body, it seemed, being stretched to the breaking point.' The penultimate story in The Girl with the Peacock Harp is a tricky one. Michael Eisele offers an interesting variation on one of the most familiar tropes of horror fiction. I could add that it was used quite recently by scriptwriter X in TV series Y, but I'm not going to. No spoilers from me! But it could add that the vignette 'The Eyes' is something of a pendant to this longer tale. Instead of blabbing about the central idea, let me say that it's a well-crafted story that deals with confusion, isolation, and fear. The outcast, in one form or another, dominates this collection. Here the nature of protagonist is implicitly supernatural, but the same sense of alienation is found among 'natural' characters, too. Eisele is on the si

'Monkey'

Today's story from The Girl with the Peacock Harp is set in contemporary Britain. Nadia Marabet, a British-born Arab Muslim, is sent to do community service at a psychiatric hospital. There she encounters a boy dubbed Monkey, who was found in mysterious circumstances and is assumed to be autistic. However, Monkey's strange, cat-like eyes and his ability to speak Arabic leads Nadia to form a rather different theory. As with the previous story, 'Kelpie', Michael Eisele here offers a variation on a theme from folklore. In this case the supernatural being is one familiar from The Thousand and One Nights, but the author rings the changes by having a djinn or genie encounter a clever, resourceful modern woman who is not interested in having wishes granted. Or at least, not for her. The story also use the classic 'be careful what you wish for' theme in a new and interesting way. The conclusion may not be entirely surprising to anyone who recalls the X-Files episode

Clash of the Icons

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Everyone knows John Carpenter's soundtracks for his early movies, if you know his early movies. Here someone has taken the distinctive, minimalist, Carpenter approach and applied to another iconic piece of pop culture, the Doctor Who theme. I think it's rather good.

'Kelpie'

Today's story from Michael Eisele's first collection, The Girl with the Peacock Harp , features a relatively neglected being from Celtic folklore. I've always like the Kelpie, or water-horse. (One of the many Loch Ness investigations was named Project Water Horse.) Depending on which source you read the kelpie can be bad news, but in some cases it is benevolent. The kelpie's ambiguous nature is evoked in this story, which is set in an Ireland not known to history. This is an land where witches are ducked in ponds and the Witchfinder General (a very English, Puritan concept that never crossed the Irish Sea) strikes terror into humble peasant folk. Young Dara is known to be a girl with strange powers, but she survives ducking by an apparent miracle. Dara has some mystical link to the element of water, and enjoys the protection of the nuns at what appears to be a Catholic sanctuary. However, all is not quite as it seems. This story shines when Eisele describes the em

Ghost Poll

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The poll asking 'Do You Believe in Ghosts' ended with a draw between 'Yes' and 'No, but I'm still scared of them'. There were a few Maybes and only one straight No. What does this prove? I've no idea. If ghosts exist we are all ghosts, and I'm typing this during a brief sojourn in a fleshly form. With sausage fingers.

'Milosh' & 'Sanity'

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Not one but two stories by Michael Eisele today, because I went to bed early last night. Yes, I read in bed, what of it? I have a hot water bottle and always wrap up warm. Anyway, both these tales return to themes already explored earlier in The Girl with the Peacock Harp . 'Milosh', which has no supernatural elements, is the simple tale of a Roma/gypsy lad who falls in love with a young woman who plays him false. It's nicely wrought, and it's message that the outcasts are often better people than self-styled civilised folk seems apposite these days. 'Sanity' surprised me a little, in that it seems a little too like 'What Dreams May Come'. Here again we have a woman in contemporary America who imagines that she is a being of great power in another world. There is a twist, but it's a little too predictable for old Buffy fans like myself. Another problem is that the fantasy world where Magda, the protagonist, is a powerful mage made me think of Dun

'Frogs'

We're back in eastern Europe for the next story in The Girl with the Peacock Harp by Michael Eisele. This time, though, we are not Tsarist Russia or Austria-Hungary, but in Soviet-occupied Poland. In  this vignette a Russian police officer encounters a beautiful woman and, fancying his chances, arranges a rendezvous of a fateful night. Rejecting the warnings of the local priest, he suffers the same fate as an army of Mongol conquerors centuries earlier... This is a slight but atmospheric tale, in which magic is interwoven with the grim, bloody chaos that engulfed most of Europe in the first half of the 20th century. It's tempting to try and see Eisele as having an over-arching world view, given how he homes in on certain crucial periods. But of course an author can simply find turbulent times interesting for their own sake. Another story will be reviewed tomorrow.

Closed to Submissions!

Sorry, but that's it for another year! I've been deluged, as per usual, with stories. Many are of a very high quality and I'm pleased - as always - that ST is attracting so many writers with such a divers range of styles, ideas, and approaches. Thank you to everyone who submitted.

'Gloria and the Selchie'

'You can look at a stranger's face anywhere you may be and behind the face is a story...' So begins a tale of the Emerald Isle, and a variation on an old theme in Michael Eisele's collection The Girl with the Peacock Harp . Mary Murphy is an Irish country girl with big ambitions, who reinvents herself as Gloria, a blonde bombshell. She doesn't manage to bag herself the kind of handsome husband with good prospects, though, until she happens to take a stroll along the beach at Dundalk. There she sees four of the seal-folk changing their skins. Gloria knows enough to grab the skin of a handsome male 'selchie', and this puts him in thrall to her. Needless to say, this forced relationship does not end well, though at first Frank - as the marine chap is dubbed - seems to bring Gloria luck as well as lovable children. It's a neat twist on the more traditional treatment, when a man steals the skin of a female selchie/selkie to make her his beautiful bride. B

Seek Ye the Mark of the Witch!

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That's an official message, up above. People in England are being urged  to find witches' marks inside the fabric of old buildings. The marks were supposed to ward off evil forces that threatened the household, attributed to witches consorting with demons and generally misbehaving. Today we have estate agents. Faint symbols have been recorded in buildings and sites across England, including Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon, the Tower of London, and Wookey Hole caves in Somerset – where a tall stalagmite has been shown to tourists for centuries as the petrified body of a witch.  The patterns include flower-like designs made with compasses and dividers, pentangles, intertwined Vs and Ms for the Virgin Mary, and tangles of lines which it was believed confused spirits who attempted to follow them. Tadpole-shaped scorch marks made with a candle flame have also been found.

Hallowe'en-y Listening

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Let me invite you to pour yourself an comfy chair, settle down in a glass of port, and listen to some suitably weird tales for this ghostly, grisly, and garfunkely season. First up, a bit of Bram Stoker in one of his stranger phases, adapted for the old BBC wireless. Next, a radio drama with a fairly familiar theme... Finally, something a little more subtle by a poet who wrote some of the most enigmatic and absorbing weird tales.

'What Dreams May Come'

Today's story in Michael Eisele's The Girl with the Peacock Harp takes a classic theme and re-works it to interesting effect. Fritz Leiber, Charles Beaumont, and James Thurber are just three authors who tackled the idea of the dream that is more real than mundane reality. But in all those cases the dream proved deadly to the dreamer. Things are rather different here. In the blurb Eisele's tale is summed up thus: '‘What Dreams May Come’ moves the scene to modern day Manhattan, as an advertising executive is haunted by dreams of a giant raptor.' This is true but also slightly misleading, as the executive in question in a divorced woman in a man's world who finds her dream-life as a female bird of prey far more acceptable than her job. She takes delight in flight, predation, and her high status as  a female in a quasi-matriarchal culture. Whether her other self is in a parallel universe, some remote epoch of our world, or perhaps another planet is not clear. W

Interview up at greydogtales

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It had to happen. Someone only went and asked what I actually 'think' about various matters, such as weird fiction. If you can stand the shock, the interview is here . It's a very good site, with lots of interesting things. And a bit about me. And ST, of course. 

'The Eyes'

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We're back in Old Russia for the next story in Michel Eisele's The Girl  with the Peacock Harp . 'The Eyes' begins with Natalia leaving her eighteenth birthday party on an impulse, after feeling stifled by a multiplicity of suitors. It is winter, and instead of taking the usual way home Natalia orders her driver to take the one horse sort-of open sleight onto the frozen Neva. A pack of wolves emerges from the woods and a hot pursuit begins, with the wolves gaining... This is a vignette that lingers in the mind thanks to some powerful imagery. The lead wolf, a black-furred creature, fascinates Natalia, who sees in him something lacking in the (implicitly) over-civilised adult life she has symbolically rejected. It's a Romantic story in the original sense of the term, favouring passion over reason, the intensity of the moment over the pleasures of moderation. That said, Natalia keeps a gun in her handbag, so the ways of technological civilisation are not to be spurn

Locations for 'A Warning to the Curious'

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This excellent piece at the BFI site looks at the use of landscape, light, and various locations for Lawrence Gordon Clark's 1972 adaptation of the classic tale. Fans of Clark will know that the adaptation stars Peter Vaughan as Paxton, who is presented not as a well-to-do young man with antiquarian leanings but a jobless amateur archaeologist. Paxton has become far more sympathetic through actually having a desperate, financial reason for finding the crown. But, more importantly, Clark has changed James’s landscape from one of a shadow Aldeburgh in Suffolk to the north Norfolk coast – a pivotal shift of topography that results in a number of intriguing changes. Adam Scovell goes on to compare the two settings, and clearly enjoyed visiting the various locations. It's a pleasant read and one to whet the appetite if, like me, you plan to re-watch the programme on Hallowe'en. Aldeburgh;s Martello Tower

'The Lighthouse'

The fourth story in Michael Eisele's collection The Girl with the Peacock Harp has a British setting, but still takes place in the same 'Weird 19th Century' as the previous three tales. It's told from a first-person perspective, however, which makes an interesting contrast the folk-tale approach of the earlier stories. First-person tales can offer the reader 'extreme close ups' on the strange that the third person tends to make difficult. The narrator is a lighthouse keeper, recently retired from a life at sea, who thinks his new job will be a near-sinecure. But the enthusiasm which which the board recruits him, and some talk with a typically gnomic local, makes it clear early on that the post is problematic. After all, if your job interview consists largely of a series of questions about mythical sea creatures, there's obviously something going on. It's a nicely-crafted tale, as the lonely hero discovers that the 'Professor' who built the l

Ghosts & Historians

A fascinating scholarly item has been lobbed my way by author Steve Duffy. In 'Why Historians Needs Ghosts' Dr Francis Young points out that Hallowe'en prompts a wave of interest in local history via widely credited tales of the supernatural.  Ten years ago, ‘ghost tours’ were considered cheap and vulgar, and largely confined to privately run attractions. Nowadays, highly respected heritage organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust are in on the act, and the Hallowe’en ghost tour has become an accepted part of the calendar at many stately homes and castles. Dr Young rightly points out that local ghost stories are the one kind of local history you can find in every bookshop. But it is, he observes, part of a very long tradition, something fans of the fictional ghost story already know. And by this stage in the essay I think we all know who's going to pop up as the true progenitor of modern spooky local history. The spirit of (...) ‘supernatural an

Satanic Soap

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... not the television kind. Just the soapy kind . For the clean demon in your life.

'The Music'

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The third story in The Girl with the Peacock Harp follows 'The Beginning' and takes up that story with Maximilian, the brilliant violinist, performing for loose change as a busker. Many years have passed since he fled his home, and he lives a miserable hand-to-mouth existence. A leading composer hears Maximilian's brilliant improvisations and seeks to exploit them. It is the fashion to incorporate folk music in 'serious' music. However, what amounts to a kidnapping of the old man merely reinforces how alien the world of formal composition is Maxilimian. The old man escapes and returns to his own people. As in the previous tales, Michael Eisele conjures up a lost Europe of gaudy aristocracy rubbing shoulders with grinding poverty in the cities, while the Romany/gypsy folk do their best to survive in the margins of 'respectable' society. It's clear where the author's sympathies lie. The nomads, with their living culture of music and song, are warm

Stay Tuned for Terror!

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... if you like that sort of thing. Personally I enjoy story readings, and BBC Radio 4 has very kindly set aside it's regular 'Book at Bedtime' for pre-Hallowe'en treats, among them a three-part story by Stephen King. It's entitled 'Cookie Jar', and is a new one on me. Looking forward to it! Information is here . Ooh, and there's also a Stephen King Quiz. I got 8/10, so it's not that hard. Yeah, I'll just have some crisps, ta very much...

'The Beginning'

The second story in The Girl With the Peacock Harp is set in roughly the same time as the first, and  in a not dissimilar place. We move from Tsarist Russia to the realm of the Hapsburgs in the late 19th century (judging from internal evidence). Michael Eisele conjures up a world in which the Romany people still travel in horse-drawn wagons and anarchists throw bombs into carriages. One fortunate clan is allowed by a human Graf to camp on his estate every year, and it is there that the nobleman's heir, Thomas, forms a childhood friendship with Kisaiya the 'gypsy' girl. An unfortunate prank leads to a mock betrothal between the two, and Kisaiya becomes obsessed with the idea that she is destined to be with Thomas. He is sent away to school, but when he returns he is re-united with his paramour and swears to marry her for real. Needless to say this causes ructions among the nobility but, thanks to some machinations by a cunning flunky, Kisaiya is turned into a lady and t

The Furniture of Horror

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By furniture I mean furniture. The literal stuff you sit on and put things in and so forth, not the mental furniture of the horror fan. Because there's this rather sarcastic news in the Guardian ... Chances are that Halloween has always felt a little hollow to you – an imported celebration so far removed from its original intention that it now exists solely as a delivery method for Cadbury’s Ghooost Eggs and sexy Ken Bone costumes. What we need is to go back to basics and remember what Halloween is really about: opportunistic press releases from furniture companies about the safest furniture to hide behind when there’s a murderer in your house. Yes, a list of the kind of furniture found in horror movies. Some of it impossible, or at least very difficult to hide behind on inside. Here is the 'furniture related death' table from the original press release . It is quite logical  to put the besd at the top in terms of 'Chance of Death Rating'. We've all seen a

'An Old Tale'

'Long ago, in faraway Russia, there was a great academy of ballet.' So begins the first story in The Girl with the Peacock Harp , The Russia that Michael Eisele is faraway in terms of history, this being the Russia of a Tsars. It is also the remote, snow-bound of fairy-tale and folkore, a strange place where - given the oddness of everyday Russian reality - almost anything might happen. The story concerns Rasveta, daughter of a poor woman well known - perhaps intimately - to the legendary Master of the academy. When the Master admits the poor girl the high-born dancers are shocked, and some become resentful when Rasveta shows herself to be superbly talented, The death of the Master removes the poor girl's one defence against the spite of her aristocratic rivals, and she is expelled. This might have been a realistic tragedy, but the story then develops in a surprising way. There is no Disney-style happy ending, with the poor girl vindicated and her snooty rival brought

Mister Postman Delivers An Unexpected Package

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Tartarus Press have generously sent me a review copy of a new book by a previously unpublished author. The Girl with the Peacock Harp by Michael Eisele contains fifteen stories. So, in what has become a quasi-tradition here on the ST blog, I will soon commence a 'running review' as I read through the stories, commenting here on one a day, with a bit of luck. As you would expect from TP, it's a beautiful volume. I mean, look at it. If the stories are anything like as good as the physical book, I'm in for a rare old read. Stay tuned for further developments, fiction fans.

Nunkie for Hallowe'en!

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"Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad" from thomthomproductions on Vimeo . Over at the video hosting site Vimeo you can find a small sample of Rob Lloyd Parry. It's a taster for a full-on 45 minute performance of the M.R. James classic 'Oh Whistle...' which goes live on Hallowe'en. It promises to be a wonderfully atmospheric production. Here is the blurb... "Who is this who is coming…?"  M R James is acknowledged as the master of the English Ghost Story and Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad – a tale of nocturnal horror on the Suffolk coast – is considered by many to be his masterpiece.  James first performed his supernatural tales to friends at Christmas in King’s College, Cambridge in the years before the First World War. Now Nunkie and ThomThomProductions have brought this tradition back to thrilling life. Filmed in one take by the light of a single candle, this is storytelling at its most stark and effective.  So pour

Horror Movie Posters from Thailand

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By which I don't mean movies for Thai horror movies, such as Shutter. No, I mean posters for Western horror movies that really went all out to make Thai audiences think, "Ooh, that is disturbing stuff and no mistake!" Only in Thai, obviously.

Incompetent? Or blatant attempt to bring about Apocalypse?

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Probably incompetent, to be honest. I mean, what respectable Satanist would try and get away with this? Yes, it's Evil Baby Jesus . In Ontario. Steve Duffy, author of many a fine story, has drawn my attention to this, which looks... bonkers. Or evil. Or both. Apparently the real head was broken off and stolen and they couldn't afford a proper replacement. So a local artist volunteered to have a go. The clay head has begun to erode from the rain after less than a week. "I don't expect it to last long. She plans on sculpting in stone sometime next year," he said.  Lajeunesse said many parishioners have expressed hurt, surprise, and disappointment with the new head. "It's a first try. It's a first go. And hopefully what is done at the end will please everyone," he said.

The Hex

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I love radio drama, and this adaptation of M.R. James' 'Casting the Runes' is good fun. A nice pre-Hallowe'en listen.

Michael Dirda on Spooky Reading Matter

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Washington Post critic Michael Dirda clearly has a thing for classic, classy supernatural fiction. In this column he recommends a lot of good stuff, and a reassuringly large number of writers concerned happen to have appeared in ST. Hooray! I think Dirda's piece proves that the small press world is doing remarkably well when it comes to bringing quality short stories to the eager masses. We'd be snookered if it weren't for the likes of Tartarus, Swan River, etc. They are doing what big commercial publishers don't really want to - addressing a healthy niche market that will never be hugely profitable. I was also pleased to see Dover Books mentioned, as decent paperbacks of classic weird tales are essential in my humble opinion. How else is someone who's not especially wealthy supposed to get a feel for the history and range of the genre if not by picking up a (relatively) cheap copy of Blackwood's or Bierce's stories? Anyway, I'll leave you to read

Praise for E.F. Benson

In the Guardian Nicholas Lazard offers a new edition of Benson's ghost stories as his fictional choice for the season. As vehicles for giving readers the willies, they are most effective. When I reread “Caterpillars”, for the first time in four decades, I very quickly regretted that I had chosen to do so at night. Gatiss, in his introduction, says that it is “perhaps a ghost story like no other”, and he’s not wrong: it’s the kind of story that leaves one feeling almost unclean, checking clothes and body for vermin. Lazard rightly observes that the late Victorian era produced some superb authors of weird fiction, and that this might reflect a growing fascination with the workings of the unconscious. But, as he also observes, Benson's stories survive because they are well-constructed. He may always be overshadowed by M.R. James in the ghost story genre, but at his best he produced some classic tales such as 'The Face', 'Caterpillars', and 'The Room in th

'One Who Saw'

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I have a YouTube channel. Yes, I do! Though you won't see my face on it, and that leads me neatly to this example of radio drama. This is from an old South African series called Beyond Midnight, and sounds - as you might expect - very British. It's based on a story by A.M. Burrage who was the great rival of E.F. Benson between the wars. The authors were commissioned  to write ghost stories for competing magazines and really churned them out. This didn't always lead to high-quality work, but in this case I think the premise of the tale is very effective.

Hammer Horror Pop Art...

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... for the very rich. These posters are great, but oh, the cost! The art market is insane, blah blah, I've got no magic solutions. Look at the nice piccies!

Electronic version now available to the digitally-minded and young at heart!

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Buy the Amazon Kindle version (cover above) for a price that is frankly derisory. Amazon UK Amazon US

New Magazine Makes Everything Better

Well, all issues of ST#30 should be on their way to subscribers, or should have already arrived. With luck the ebook version will also be available soon. Apologies again for the delay.

Beautiful Horror

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This follows on naturally from my last post, as Buzzfeed has publishe d a long (66 images) list of horror movies that it describes as 'beautiful as hell'. Beauty is of course highly subjective, but it's a good list. I've seen most of the films, and heard of almost all of them. What struck me most about the list, though, was the contrast between colour and black and white. Is the latter better for horror films? Maybe. But I would defend the subtle and sumptuous colours used by the best directors/cinematographers. Here are a few examples. A Tale of Two Sisters

The Vampire and the Ballerina (1960)

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So, last night I watched an Italian Hammer film. Sort of. Made in 1960, L'amante del Vampiro is a rather wondrous thing. But first, the thrilling teaser trailer... Got all that? It does bear some relation to the plot, for a wonder. It's a cheesy, silly film in some ways, but in others it's rather stylish and even, at times, intelligent. Visually it's pretty good, showing a steady hand from the director, Renato Polselli. Spoiler alert! I'll try to keep it mysterious, but some bits of this one are too good not to share. Our story begins in the present day (i.e. the late Fifties) with a bunch of sturdy Italian peasants milking cows, de-egging chickens, all the usual malarkey. Brigita, a buxom wench, is told to go and fetch water from the stream. After dark. Brigita inevitably drops her bucket as a cloaked figure appears and pounces upon her. Cue the usual stuff. Peasants run around rhubarbing and expositing that 'There's been another attack!' a

Nothing Ominous About Giant Moths, Say Giant Moths

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Britain is being invaded by Death's Head Hawk Moths, which have skull-like markings and are described by one rather excitable newspaper as 'measuring as big as KITTENS!' The moth-stricken hack adds that 'The Death's Head Hawk also appears in Bram Stoker's Dracula and is historically believed to foretell of war, hunger and death.'  Blimey. With a wingspan of around six inches, the moth is roughly the size of a small bat and emits a "horrendous" loud piercing squeak which adds to its scary reputation. Steve Prangnell, who found the moth with his wife Maggie, said: "It makes a horrendous noise, a scary squeaking noise". The couple called the Sussex Moth Group and logged the rare sighting on their website before releasing the moth at dusk where they found it at Holy Rood Church, Pevensey, East Sussex. Giant squealing moths? Just in time for Hallowe'en? Sounds fabulous.

New Laptop

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Okay, after much tribulation I'm using a new machine equipped with Windows 10, which I'm not too keen on. Well, we shall see. I have, however, taken delivery of copies of hard ST 33 so everyone who is owed a copy as a subscriber, or entitled to free copies as  contributors, will be receiving theirs very soon. I hope.