Wednesday 28 December 2016

Inside No. 9

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 couple of minutes a voice over begins, and we are in the realms of DVD commentary. The director of 'The Devil of Christmas, played by Derek Jacobi, asks for the tape to be rewound so we can see a minor continuity error. We see unedited footage, and its explained that the leading man is speeding up his dialogue to get things over with because he had another job that day.

This layered approach is great fun, and paradoxically enough makes the story we have been told is a piece of old hokum even more interesting. The script and acting are pitch perfect, and the presence of Rula Lenska as the boy's stroppy, glamorous gran is a nice touch. ('Missed her mark, poor love.') A lot of cliches are carefully re-used, particularly the twist ending that so often fell flat. The final twist here, which I didn't expect, puts everything we've just seen in a new light. This certainly bodes well for the all-too-few episodes to come next year.

Saturday 24 December 2016

Yuletide Ghosts

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!

Thursday 22 December 2016

TLS praises tale from ST

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.

Wednesday 21 December 2016

Ghosts on the Nog

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 hold an audience with an actual reading. Best title, I think, goes to Benson for 'Between the Lights', which is very evocative. Anyway, I'm sure you have your own Yuletide favourites.

The Devil of Christmas

Image may contain: 2 people

'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.

Tuesday 20 December 2016

'Night in the Pink House'

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 faked torture in the past, the narrator is quite capable of the real thing now.

A hard one to classify, this, and perhaps an example of the 'new weird'. Fortunately for some of us it suggests violence rather than depicting it. Perhaps for this reason it is disturbing and lingers like a rather unusual scar.

A Twist in the Eye

Friday 16 December 2016

This Spectacular Darkness - Part 2.

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 reader with strange phenomena that are both supernatural and yet don't partake of the obvious gimmicks that we find in less original ghost stories. And I think Lane is right in identifying loneliness, and a particularly urban, sophisticated kind of loneliness, as a driving force in Leiber's fiction. In his essay 'No Secret Place: The Haunted Cities of Fritz Leiber', Lane also provides valuable insights into the way Leiber's troubled personal life influenced his work.

Robert Bloch was a contemporary of Leiber and, like him, a disciple of Lovecraft. Both authors found distinctive personal voices. In his essay on Bloch's novel Strange Eons Lane considers the ways in which Bloch wrote within the Lovecraft tradition, but stayed true to the spirit the Cthulhu Mythos rather than simply using the Great Old Ones as walk-on characters in conventional horror stories. In 'Hell Is Other People' Lane provides an excellent overview of Bloch's brand of horror noir, much of which he produced in script form for TV and Hollywood. Psycho looms large, of course, but Bloch's neglected short stories are rightly foregrounded. They are well worth seeking out.

I can't recommend this collection too highly. In two blog entries I have still not covered a quarter of the material collected, and my brief comments can't do justice to Joel Lane's thoughtful, humane criticism.

Thursday 15 December 2016

'In His Grandmother's Coat'

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 possible roots of horror here are many and varied, but definitely there.

A Twist in the Eye

Tuesday 13 December 2016

'Line of Fire'

A Twist in the Eye

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'

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.

Sunday 11 December 2016

'Hidden in the Alphabet'

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 committing spoilerism.

This is stylistically assured story, not supernatural but with a definite whiff of the weird in which an optician's eye test card is used to reveal a sinister conspiracy.

A Twist in the Eye

Friday 9 December 2016

The Once and Future Tourist Attraction

There is no evidence of permanent occupation of the Tor, but finds, including Roman pottery, do suggest that it was visited on a regular basis. Photo Credit

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.

Interior of St Michael's Tower. Photo Credit

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 fortification of their slopes. Another suggestion, proposed by Geoffrey Russell in 1968, is that the terraces are the remains of a three-dimensional labyrinth that guided pilgrims up the sacred hill.
Its a very impressive and mysterious place.

'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 spoil the ending, but it's remarkable.

You can enjoy my profound thoughts on another story very soon.

A Twist in the Eye - 'Returning'

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.

A Twist in the Eye

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 holiday with Josie. The twist, if it is one in the familiar sense, is that the 'ghost' he sees is his older self, a widower in decline. Thus Terrence's vision heralds the death of his 'better half'. Wilkinson blurs past and future into a kind of static, eternal present in the tale, which dwells on mortality without rancour. In the face of death we can do nothing but go on being ourselves.

Stay tuned for another mini-review.

A Twist in the Eye

Thursday 8 December 2016

This Spectacular Darkness - Review Begins

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, whose books you should seek out. The essay on Theodore Sturgeon, 'The Territory of the Others', is a case in point. I have read a few novels and perhaps a dozen of Sturgeon's short stories. Lane rightly points out that at the heart of all Sturgeon's fiction is a preoccupation with human identity, whether he was writing horror or science fiction, Lane points out that the author never quite fits in either genre. He was truly a one-off, and I wonder if he has been somewhat neglected because of this?

Harlan Ellison's works were never easy to get hold of when I was a lad, and like Sturgeon he is not easy to classify in genre terms. Lane's reasonable assessment - based on far greater knowledge than mine - is that Ellison has little interest in the 'genuine' supernatural, but finds it useful as a source of metaphor. The demons are almost always personal. And then there are those Ellison  titles, such as 'The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie', 'I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream', and 'Pennies, Off Dead Man's Eyes'. Other highlights are 'Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes', a good variation on the traditional ghost story, and 'Croatoan', which is unusually controversial even for Ellison. Few horror stories are as horrific as 'Croatoan' because it focuses entirely on very believable human frailty and offers no convenient cop-out.

And that's all for now. More later on this remarkable book.

Tuesday 6 December 2016

RIP Peter Vaughan

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, and I was always delighted to spot him in something new. Imagine my pleasure when he turned up in Game of Thrones as a venerable mentor with a murky past. Anyway, here he is in an obscure drama based on not one but two classic ghost stories by Ambrose Bierce and A.M. Burrage. Raise a glass to a fine actor, and enjoy.

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...