Tuesday 29 March 2016

The Ghostly Locations of Dr James

If you've read M.R. James' ghost stories, you're familiar with his account of his childhood home turf in East Anglia, His guidebook, Suffolk and Norfolk, is also worth a look, giving lots of background to the kind of places that helped inspire his tales. Now a blog, Eastscapes, has posted some very fine photos of sites mentioned in the guide, and very atmospheric they are. Here are a couple that certainly evoke Monty's tales.

A Gottle of Geer - Devil Dolls & Deadly Dummies

Here's a link to an article entitled 'The Demonic Origins of Ventriloquism'. It contains such interesting revelations as:
In 150 A.D., a man called Alexander of Abonoteichus captivated contemporaries when he discovered a talking serpent with a human head. Not so captivated was the skeptical writer Lucian, who declared that the head was made from linen, mounted on a snake's body, and made to speak through a tube operated by a concealed assistant. While not ventriloquism, it was an early use of a “dummy” to focus the audience’s attention on a miraculous voice. (Thankfully, animal carcasses have been phased out of modern interpretations.)

Apparently ventriloquists were known to the Greeks as 'engastrimyths'. By medieval times throwing your voice was linked to witchcraft. 'An account of the possession of a boy in 1500s England declared baying hounds could be heard in his stomach.' This was, of course, long before the invention of Rennies.

Horror films are mentioned, naturally, as there's no shortage of evil dolls on celluloid.

While Western movies such as Dead of Night and Magic have memorable dummies, there are a few Asian examples from recent years. The Doll Master, from South Korea, is particularly enjoyable, with its theme of a whole house dedicated to the art of doll making. Well, of course you're go there for a nice quiet weekend, wouldn't you?

Sunday 27 March 2016

Robert Aickman: Author of Strange Tales

Here's an interesting documentary from Ray Russell of Tartarus Press. The blurb says:

This documentary explores and provides new insights into the life and writing of British author Robert Aickman (1914-1981), with special reference to his celebrated 'strange stories' - modern ghost stories - his two volumes of autobiography and his campaigning work for the restoration of the British canal system. The film includes rare footage, recordings and photographs of Aickman, interviews with his friends and with writers Jeremy Dyson and Reggie Oliver, and dramatized excerpts of his stories.

ST 31 Poll - Vote For Your Favourite Story!

Yes, it's time to vote for work by a living author. (Living authors are, themselves, as entitled to vote as anyone else. But only once, mind!)

Yes, over to the right is the online poll for the last-but-one issue. Other methods of voting are acceptable, of course. You can do it in the comments here, you can send me an email, you can strap your vote to a carrier gerbil and point it in the direction of Tyneside.

The point is to vote, so that one lucky author can win a glorious victory and twenty-five smackeroos. Or pounds, as most people call them.

Saturday 26 March 2016

'The Result'

The idea was not Robert's, of course. It was the brain-child - horrendous expression! - of Valdemar, a moderately absurd individual who made a point of wearing what learning he had lightly. (Is there any other way to wear one's learning, these days?) To be be fair to him Valdemar did at least seek to list Robert's best stories, in so far as lasting value can be assigned to any literary endeavour in a culture founded on self-destructive irony and competing consumerist moralities, each one as threadbare as the last. The result was predictable, and indeed had been predicted. More readers (Yes! Such fantastical entities still exist, it seems, even 'online') had voted for 'The Inner Room' than for any other story of Robert's. It was of course a haunted house tale with much that was conventional about it, yet not entirely devoid of merit for all that. Was Robert pleased? The question is reasonable enough, one might suppose...
Thanks, Bob, always nice to hear from you - a song, a smile, and an existential catastrophe couched in vaguely Freudian images. Have some foul coffee essence and a horrible cheap cake.

Yes, 'The Inner Room' won by a narrow margin over 'Ringing the Changes', but most of the best-known Aickman stories did well. 'The Cicerones' was helped by the excellent TV adaptation by Jeremy Dyson starring Mark Gatiss, I think. The same might be said for 'The Same Dog'. 'The Stains' and 'The Hospice' also performed strongly, and I think that's fair enough. 'The Swords' and 'The Trains' might have done better. Overall, though, a very satisfying exercise. Unless you're an Aickman character, in which you can be forgiven a sense of slightly bemused ennui.

Friday 25 March 2016

Gef, the ghostly talking mongoose

Truth is not always stranger than fiction, but it can be. Back in the 1930s a farming family on the Isle of Man (which lies roughly midway between England, Scotland, and Ireland) claimed that a talking mongoose had moved in with them. A talking mongoose with human hands. Oh, and it was a ghost.
The mysterious creature first showed up in the Irving residence sometime in 1931, and, according to the accounts of James, Margaret, and Voirrey, initially lived in the walls and, not yet able to speak, imitated a range of animal noises. Quickly, the unseen entity started to pick up human language from the Irvings, and, before long,introduced itself to the family: His name, he said, was “Gef” (pronounced “Jeff”), and he was a mongoose from India.
You can read one account of the story here. Not surprisingly, some people - among them the famous ghost-hunter Harry Price - concluded that the Irvings were deluded or hoaxers. Journalists, of course, don't tend to worry too much about the truth in such situations, and Gef made good copy. Things got very silly when Rex Lambert, who co-authored a book about the case with Price, sued a retired colonel for slander because the latter had suggested Lambert must be bonkers for bothering with such nonsense.

One point I find fascinating is this. Nigel Kneale, author of Quatermass and The Stone Tape, was from the Isle of Man. He was born in England, true, but spent much of his boyhood on his ancestral isle. He was born in 1922, and the Gef case was making headlines about ten years later. It's reasonable to conclude that young Nigel must have had his imagination stimulated by a weird haunting involving a talking animal. Is it surprising that he went on to write tales of the paranormal, among them an entire series featuring various weird Beasts? Especially since, in the first and most disturbing episode, 'Baby', the plot revolves around a mysterious animal that is found inside the walls of a country cottage.

Saturday 19 March 2016

In the end it it the poll that endures...

I've posted a Robert Aickman popularity poll on the right. He would probably have hated the whole idea, which is just another good reason for doing it. As before, you can cast multiple votes. I appreciate that some people can't stand Aickman, but including negative votes is a bit beyond me at the moment. The point is, if you like his stuff, here's an opportunity to say so.

Friday 18 March 2016

It's a Draw!

E.F. Benson's stories 'Caterpillar's and 'The Room in the Tower' came joint first with 11 votes each in the exciting online poll, closely followed by 'The Face' and 'Negotium Perambulans'. I was surprised that there were poor showings by the much-anthologised vampire story 'Mrs Amworth' (5 votes) and 'How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery' (2 votes).

So, that's Fred Benson. Let's have a breather. Next up, Aickman. So far I've got these stories. There are rather a lot of them. Any more?

The Swords
Bind Your Hair
The Hospice
Ringing the Changes
The School-Friend
The Inner Room
The Cicerones
Never Visit Venice
Pages From a Young Girl's Journal
The Houses of the Russians
The Same Dog
The Wine Dark Sea
Meeting Mr Millar
The Unsettled Dust
Into the Woods
The View
The Trains

Book of Shadows!

The Third Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows will be out later this year, and the table of contents was recently published in Ro Pardoe's G&S Newsletter. So here it is:

'Twenty Years Afterwards' by C.E. Ward
'A Gap in Society' by John Howard
'Tempus Edax Rerum' by John Llewellyn Probert
'The Man in the Rose Bushes' by Steve Rasnic Tem
'Another Episode of Cathedral History' by Peter Holman
'Holywood' by Tom Johnstone
'Bone Matter' by David A. Sutton
'The Second Crown' by Katherine Haynes
'The Brooch' by John Ward
'We Don't Want for Company' by D.P. Watt
'Blackberry Time' by Peter Bell
'The Mask of the Dead Mamilius' by Mark Valentine

What a line-up! The first two Books of Shadows were very good (of course), and this third volume will only reinforce what a tremendous inspiration M.R. James still is.

Update: here's the link to the Sarob Press blog.

Review Copies of e-book

Please let me know if you would like a MOBI (Kindle) or EPUB version of ST 32 for review purposes. I'm happy to supply an e-book to anyone who asks so long as they are sincere about wanting to write a review - however brief - and put it somewhere, or indeed anywhere, on the crazy old internet.

Tuesday 15 March 2016

Polling Update

You've still got plenty of time to vote in the E.F. Benson poll, and also to make your feelings felt re; the next one. How about Robert Aickman? And if so, which of his stories should be included? Here's a scratch list:

The Swords
Bind Your Hair
The Hospice
Ringing the Changes
The School-Friend
The Inner Room
The Cicerones
Never Visit Venice
Pages From a Young Girl's Journal
The Houses of the Russians
The Same Dog
The Wine Dark Sea
Meeting Mr Millar
The Unsettled Dust...

Actually, it might be easier to decide which stories to exclude and then list the survivors. Let me know what you think, Aickman enthusiasts.

Robert Aickman 7.jpg

Update: Okay, Jason Newton (below) nominates 'Into the Woods', which I do recall as an impressive tale. Any more?

Oh yes, I forgot 'The Trains'.

Update update: And 'The View'.

Saturday 12 March 2016

Supernatural Selfie

Author Kathy Stevens has received her complimentary copies of ST 32. Kathy is clearly happy, despite being trapped in a strange mirror world, and you can be too. Just go to the tab marked Buy Supernatural Tales and click through the various links to order/download your copy.

And as a free sample to whet your appetite, here's me reading Kathy's story 'The Ghost on the Hill'.

Update: Kathy emailed me to say she's been accepted on an MA course in Creative Writing, and this may partly be because she was the only candidate interviewed who'd had anything accepted for publication. That's great news, and I'm glad ST has helped to start what promises to be a long and distinguished writing career. Well done, Kathy!

E.F. Benson - Spook Story Poll

When I was compiling the poll of what may be E.F. 'Fred' Benson's best ghost stories, it occurred to me that there are rather a lot of them.

If I included 'How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery' I could hardly exclude 'Caterpillars', and if 'The Face' is in there I could hardly leave out 'Mrs Amworth'. I put in 'The Bus-Conductor' mostly because it features in the film Dead of Night, and I could hardly leave out a much-anthologised tale like 'The Room in the Tower'.

So, there's your poll, and you've got just under a week to vote.

Friday 11 March 2016

The Ghost Story Awards 2016

This just in from Mark Valentine, famed scholar-gypsy of Middle England and all-round expert on literary weirdness...

The winner of the award for best ghost story book is: Friends of the Dead by James Doig (Sarob Press).
The winner of the award for best individual ghost story is ‘Malware’ by James Doig from the above collection.

A worthy double victory for James, there. I'm so relieved I gave him a good review

Now is the time to start pondering your favourite ghost stories, individually and collectively, for this year. Let's keep the somewhat tattered, spooky flag flying here!

Thursday 10 March 2016

32 - the Meaning of Life, The Universe, and Everything. Minus ten.

Issue 32 is out and about. Contributors'  copies are on their way, and subscribers (you lovely people) should be getting  their issues in the next week or so. Meanwhile, trendy internet using folk can toddle along to the page marked Buy Supernatural Tales! See above, there's a tab and everything. You can buy it electronically from Amazon for Kindle. Soon (it's uploading as I type) it will also be available from Smashwords.

I hope you enjoy it! And remember, we will be having a poll for the best story in issue 31 soon, so as to announce the winner in issue 33. Hope that makes sense.

Haunted House by Sam Dawson

And yes, there's at least one haunted house - of a kind - in this issue. No false advertising from me, matey.

The Rapture (1991)

I had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I borrowed the Region 1 DVD of this film. One of the reasons I wanted to see it was it came recommended by someone whose opinion I respect (and who knows a lot more about cinema than me). I was also keen to see David Duchovny playing opposite Mimi Rogers, as I'd noted their chemistry in The X-Files, in a few episodes of which Rogers plays an ambiguous FBI agent. Even better, when the credits rolled I noticed Patrick Bauchau also stars, and he's a very fine actor I knew from the late-lamented series Carnivale.

None of which could prepare me for what writer/director Michael Tolkin had in store. For his first film Tolkin decided to take Christian fundamentalist ideas seriously. The message is hammered home by several characters, and we are meant to take it literally - God is coming back to judge us all, in the grand style of the Revelation of St John the Divine. If you don't believe you will not go to Heaven. If you have faith and love God, you will go up in the Rapture. Spoilers follow - if you haven't read the Bible, that is...

Wednesday 9 March 2016

Monticus Triumphulus

No, I don't know Latin, why do you ask? The M.R. James story poll is finished, done, closed, over, had its chips, and bought the farm. ''Oh Whistle...'' won by a short, terrifying head over 'Lost Hearts' and 'Casting the Runes'.

The winner is arguably Monty's best-known story, while the runners-up are both full-on horror tales and much anthologised. So a bit of a split vote, I suspect. My big mistake in this poll was trying to limit the field to just ten stories instead of listing  them all, then weeding out five or six that couldn't win. One lives and learns.

Surprises? 'The Mezzotint' pipping 'The Ash-tree', and a strong showing for 'An Episode of Cathedral History'.

Tuesday 8 March 2016

The Unnamable (1988) & The Unnamable Returns (1992)

Many, many moons ago, younglings,  there was a thing called VHS. And VHS did transformeth  the world in many ways. And greatest of all was the rejoicing among the slightly grubby guys called Lou or Bubba who diddeth the porn flicks. But many other lords of creativity were also wondrously inspired...

Right that's enough of this fake fantasy intro monologue - a phrase that, oddly enough, never occurred to people in the Eighties making straight-to-VHS movies. Once it became possible to make a movie that people would buy in a store (or via mail order), a lot of people decided to make cheap movies that would never get a cinema release in the US. Hence an Eighties mini-boom in films of all kinds, but especially in sci-fi and horror.

Which brings us to not one but two my favourite Lovecaftian horror films. Writer-director Jean-Paul Ouellette is not a well-known figure in the genre, but perhaps deserves to be. These two films are a good example of how a low-budget effort can still work well, and while they have their faults they are still very watchable.

As you may recall, Lovecraft's story 'The Unnamable' is a vignette with no actual plot. All that happens is that three blokes sitting in a graveyard discuss spooky old stories. One mentions that, in a particular house in Arkham, an attic window is said to bear the imprint of a bizarre creature that was born of a shameful and blasphemous union (yes, we're talking the sort of livestock shagging the guys who wrote the Bible were so emphatically against).

The film treatment fleshes out (and in at least one sense radically alters) Lovecraft's premise. We see old Joshua Winthrop, looking rather charming in dressing gown and night-cap, trying to calm a screaming entity that's locked in his attic. We gather that old Joshua has been tinkering with unholy tomes of eldritch lore, and as a result his wife gave birth to a demon and not the cute little girl they'd decorated the nursery for. In a fairly decent bit of suspense filming we see from the monster's POV as, maddened by a thunderstorm, it emerges from its lair and gives Joshua a less than daughterly mangling.

There then follows a truly naff moment in which three guys with radically different accents pretend to be New England Puritans. They take Winthrop's body, bury it in unconsecrated ground, and the preacher - who looks truly ludicrous - places some kind of holy curse on the house, forbidding whatever lurks within from straying outside. Why the nameless thing doesn't just mangle them as well is not clear, but it's sort of implicit that they are safe because it's daylight.

Monday 7 March 2016

"It's Coming! The Demon!"

Well, not really. But the next issue of Supernatural Tales is ready for lift-off, and will be with subscribers shortly. How shortly depends upon the vagaries of the postal system, as per. But when it arrives people will be pleased, in my opinion. Here are some details:
'Even the Veins of Leaves' by Chloe N. Clark. A sheriff's deputy sets off into a forest  to search for missing teenagers. Local legend has it that there's a lost town in the woods, and that something strange dwells there... 
'The Ground of the Circuit' by Charles Wilkinson. A wealthy couple take over a remote property in rural England, but can't get rid of a sitting tenant. The old man has some rather unusual ideas about life and death - theories he's been working on for quite a long time. 
'Waiting for Breakfast' by S.M. Cashmore. Nothing is more important to a family than a nice, secure home. Callers are welcome, though - so long as they don't plan on leaving again.  
'A Little Lost Thing' by Jeremy Schliewe. A middle-aged man meets a woman who remembers him. So why has he forgotten her, and what else has slipped his mind? 
'Masque: The Herald of the Pest' by Michael Chislett. In a strange, decadent city a festival begins, despite the looming threat of a white plague. What will the great unmasking reveal? 
'The Ghost on the Hill' by Kathy Stevens. On a bench a woman is joined by a young man. She is waiting for someone, and he is about to have a life-changing experience. You can listen to a reading of the story here.

Cover by Sam Dawson.

 Supernatural Tales 32

Wednesday 2 March 2016

Which Witch Bottle?

Veteran TV viewers like myself will never forget Nigel Kneale's drama 'Baby', the most powerful episode of his six-part series Beasts, which was shown on ITV in 1976. Baby concerns a young couple who buy a country cottage and, during renovations, discover a mysterious container buried in a wall. Inside the container they find a mummified animal that proves hard to identify. And this in turn triggers off a series of very disturbing events.

Well, the practice of buying weird things in the structure of homes and other buildings was very common. Kneale was, as usual, spot on with his folklore. This article reveals just some of the protective spells that were used to keep out witches, demons, and general ill-luck in days of yore.
Today we use locks, burglar alarms and timer-set lighting to protect our homes, but 300 years ago householders were not just worried about human intruders. They believed their homes were also at risk from supernatural forces – evil spirits, ill luck, ghosts and witches. 
And so they buried magic charms in doorways, hid spells up chimneys and beneath fireplaces and protected roof spaces with dead animals. 
Anywhere evil might enter a building, in a world beset by disease, failed harvests, disastrous fires and unexplained deaths, strong magic was needed.
The options available to the superstitious builder were, to the say the least, many and varied.
In Hethersett, near Norwich, a bottle with iron pins and nails was buried beneath a cottage fireplace. A dead cat was concealed in a room in King’s Lynn, a horse skull was hidden under the doorstep of a house in Thuxton, near Dereham, and a jar of urine, human hair and nails was unearthed in King Street, Norwich.
 Ah, the good old days.
The practice of trying to turn away evil with magic charms and potions is called apotropaios and was common for centuries. In Britain it was particularly prevalent during the peak period of the witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries, but was still seen into the 20th century.

 The  Red Cat  of the Red Cat Hotel in North Wootton.

Tuesday 1 March 2016

A win for 'The White People'

So, by a very clear margin, Machen's weirdest tale triumphed in the blog poll. Other stories did all right - 'N', 'The Inmost Light', and 'The Great God Pan' all polled strongly.

Well, the next poll is the big one, with the best stories of M.R. James in a democratic smackdown. Polish up your voting irons and prepare to say just which Thing is your kind of Thing. And, as before, you'll be allowed to vote for more than one story. I'm too good to you, I really am.

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...