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Showing posts from March, 2017

Shadows

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I've probably mentioned this at least once before, but it's a useful pendant to the entry on Folk Horror TV from earlier this month. The Thames TV series Shadows ran from 1975-8 over three seasons. Each season had a different title sequence. You can see them here . There's a distinct whiff of folk horror about them, I feel. The stories vary in quality and of course it was low budget stuff. But the writing was often first rate. Among the authors contributing to the series were Joan Aiken, Fay Weldon, Penelope Lively, and Brian Patten. There's also an adaptation of 'The Other Window' by J.B. Priestley. As this was a children's series the horror was fairly mild. But Shadows stands up well as an anthology series.

Liverpool

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I was in Liverpool at the weekend, without a permit of course. No, I snuck into that fine city to take part in a gathering of A Ghostly Company , the literary society devote to ghost stories. It was a lovely couple of days, not least because of the various luminaries who contributed. On Friday evening Jim Bryant talked about his research into the correspondence of M.R. James, whose handwriting is even worse than mine. Then Ro Pardoe of Ghosts & Scholars informally discussed her involvement with Jamesian fiction and the so-called 'James Gang', among other things. On Saturday afternoon we had an excellent talk about Liverpudlian folklore from author John Reppion , followed by a reading of a story by Peter Bell - and a fine story it was, with an unusual theme and setting. There was also a book auction to raise money for the society - an event that always leaves me conflicted as I really mean to go away with fewer books than I bring. I failed, again. Then in the evening

'In Eternity - Two Lines Intersect'

The last story in Written in Darkness is both an ending and a liberation. After taking us through the festering labyrinths of modern corporate culture, Mark Samuels reaches something approaching the Great Good Place. Again, there are overtones of Machen, and of the lesser-known Christian mystic author Charles Williams. The story begins with the first-person narrator being released from some unspecified place. Doctors have advised him to gradually re-integrate himself into society. He is given pills, sessions with a psychotherapist are arranged. Eventually the nameless man finds a flat he can afford in a run-down area of London. He finds much of the previous occupants' property and comes to feel closer to the vanished scholar, Ambrose Crashaw, than he does to the living. He abandons his modern clothes for an old-fashioned suit, as well as becoming absorbed by Crashaw's collection of rare books. Crashaw's old  radio seems to receive signals from all the outworn cultures of

'My Heretical Existence'

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This compact tale starts with a fascinating premise - that there are 'tribes' who never leave certain narrow areas of major cities, and never marry out. Mark Samuels' narrator hears of one such extended family in Sartor Street (a nod towards Thomas Carlyle, perhaps, a sort of heretic?). He is also infatuated with a young woman called Adela who goes to a pub near Sartor Street. He never dares approach her, simply getting drunk in her presence. Then one night he goes off in a random direction and finds himself in unknown territory. He finds a pub, 'The Hourglass Stilled', but when he enters he discovers a clientele far from welcoming. I could hear the creak of wooden sinews, the flexing of wooden muscles, and the grinding of wooden teeth. Their faces were painted garishly in a motley attempt to convey the human, but oh, the deadly lifelessness of their expressions! Their glass eyes were without lustre, like grey flowers. Inevitably, Adela is one of the mannequins.

'Outside Interference'

We're back in the ghastly world of modern corporate life. One thing one can't accuse Mark Samuels of avoiding is a unifying theme. Written in Darkness is saying, to coin a phrase, that modern life is rubbish, and fetid rubbish at that. Admittedly he is not presenting any kind of alternative to our interconnected global culture, but it is a not a fiction writer's job to present manifestos. He calls 'em as he sees 'em, 'Outside Interference' is set in a bleak office building somewhere in central/eastern Europe. Not just any old bleak office building, but one being phased out by a crew of soon-to-redundant workers. A viciously cold winter closes in as the hapless crew struggle to shift junk from unheated offices. Things start to go wrong when the lift malfunctions and a member of the team is turned into a kind of zombie (thought the Z-word is never used). With frantic inevitability attempts to escape or confront the menace that lurks below sub-basement lev

Small Screen Folk Horror

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A tower block harbours mystical secrets Over here  you can see a list of Seventies folk horror TV shows. Folk horror is a somewhat flexible term, but I think the list includes enough examples to give anyone a pretty good idea. We're talking about deep history, mythology, a sense of the past bearing down on the present and shaping it. Throw in demonic, ghostly, or otherwise paranormal phenomena, and you're on the way. Raven I remember a few of the shows listed, as a Seventies teenage telly viewer. Children of the Stones, Doctor Who - Image of the Fendahl, and the one-off Christmas ghost story 'Stigma' caught my attention. I don't remember the ITV shows King of the Castle or Raven, perhaps because were very much a BBC household. 'A Photograph' in the Play for Today strand is also a new one on me, and it's available to watch on YouTube. Image of the Fendahl It's interesting to note that Nigel Kneale's Quatermass finale, also made b

'My World Has No Memories'

After an 'old dark house by the graveyard' story, another favourite sub-genre gets an outing in Written in Darkness . This time it's the nautical weird tale, exemplified by authors as diverse as Lovecraft, Hodgson, and Conan Doyle. Mark Samuels' take on the idea is to have his protagonist wake up in the cabin of a sailing vessel. The first person narrator has no memories, and finds himself unable to contact anyone via radio. The GPS is not working either. But there is an odd marine entity in a jar in the cabin. A thing like 'a monstrous flower the size of a grapefruit'. A whiff of the entity's odour conjures strange visions. The narrator speculates that he set out on this yacht alone to avoid some global cataclysm. This might explain the failure of all technology. But the thing in the jar bothers him, especially as it seems to be trying to communicate telepathically in a way that threaten's the seafarer's sanity. So he throws it overboard. And it

'Alistair'

Here we are, halfway through Mark Samuels'  Written in Darkness  and we have our first 'traditional' tale of the supernatural. Well, sort of. It begins with a fine description of Gryme House in Highgate, the ancestral home of Amelia Grymes. Her husband, James, moves into the old house with his wife and small son, Alistair, when Amelia's grandparents die. James Thorpe is a failed novelist who has moved into biography, and his choices of subjects are interesting: Thomas de Quincey, Anna Kavan, and Count Stenbock. All are in some ways marginal figures who produced interesting work on the margins of major literary movements. Perhaps this is where Samuels sees himself? Strange things happen at Gryme House, events linked to the overgrown West End of nearby Highgate Cemetery. Alistair goes sleepwalking in his Scooby Doo pyjamas, and has night terrors that only Amelia can quell. James, like many fathers, feels inadequate and somewhat remote from his son. But he is also dist

'The Ruins of Reality'

The fourth story in Mark Samuels' collection  Written in Darkness  is so bleak it's almost funny. It begins with an account of an economic recession that threatens to bring down Western civilisation, and the appearance of something called the N Factory. The new factory system promises fulfilling employment, but I don't think the reader is supposed to be fooled by that for a minute. The odd thing is that mass unemployment is not, really, the major problem now - though of course it could be in future. What people are really unhappy about is that so many of those in work are struggling. Perhaps that is too complex a crisis? Because 'The Ruins of Reality' takes a very simple, straight line between the idea of old-school Depression-era poverty and yet another Ligottian take on the futility of existence. A Ligotti collection is even name-checked - the factory is managed by 'Dead Dreamers'. The story is a kind of prose-poem to misery, ugliness, and despair. It

Going Deep

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Not strictly supernatural, but I like this kind of thing, especially when Mr. B is involved.

'An Hourglass of the Soul'

I continue my running review of  Written in Darkness by Mark Samuels with a story that harks back to my teenage years. I should hasted to  add that this tale of a corporate software expert who finds himself at a mysterious underground site in the Gobi Desert is more exotic than my schooldays in Sunderland. But in terms of content and approach 'An Hourglass of the Soul' is very like the New Wave science fiction I read as a spotty lad. The story begins in on thedismal borders of Ligotti territory, with interestingly-named Drax in a state of puzzlement over his role at his new employer, a typically vast and faceless multinational corporation. Things grow even more puzzling when he's told to prepare for a flight to Mongolia at the shortest possible notice. Drax gamely travels thousands of miles by airliner, then by small prop plane, to caverns that house the Library of Gholraqy. This houses 'scrolls of inconceivable antiquity that foretell of the devolution of gods to me

Two Short Films On Themes I Like

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Yes, we are in the realms of Lovecraft for 'Blight', while the second mini-movie, 'Fool's Errand', is set in the Land of the Pharaohs. Both films were written by Chris Goodman, who also directed 'Fool's Errand' and co-directed 'Blight' with Katie Walshe.

''The Other Tenant'

The second story in Mark Samuels' collection  Written in Darkness is very different to the first. Or at least, that's the initial impression. However, a few pages into 'The Other Tenant' is seemed clear to me that it was in many ways a pendant or thematic sequel to the first story. The tale is simple enough, and might be an example of 'miserablist' sub-genre of British horror that emerged in the Nineties. A man with a chronic, mysterious illness is forced to give up work and moves into a new flat. His neighbour plays the television too loud and seems to watch a never-ending stream of horror films, judging by the sound tracks coming through the wall. When he complains the protagonist is told that the flat next door is in fact empty... So far, so simple. But the backstory of the invalid Zachary echoes some of the themes of 'A Call to Greatness'.This is another story about the decline of the West. Zachary is left-wing in his views, and an atheist, desp

'A Call to Greatness'

I'm restarting my almost-popular practice of running reviews with Written in Darkness by Mark Samuels, forthcoming from Chomu Press . I received a PDF copy for review. The first story could not be more timely. 'A Call to Greatness' begins with a Eurocrat in Paris who is disillusioned with the current state of the West. Enter a mysterious stranger bearing a story from the Russian civil war that followed the October Revolution of 1917. The story-within-a-story is that of a White Russian cavalry force led by a ferocious Christian mystic, A reporter for a British newspaper sets out to get an interview, and finds himself conscripted by a White commander, the Baron. The Baron is a far from sympathetic character, and his troops slaughter their way across Eurasia until sustained Bolshevik attacks wear them down. Eventually the hapless British reporter is the Baron's only follower, whereupon the anti-hero heads for Tibet in search of wisdom. In terms of style it's a fla

Keep Voting, Guys

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Look to windward, or at least to the right. And up a bit, possibly. You can see the poll for most popular story in the latest issue. Have you voted yet? Notice that it's anybody's victory at the moment, but there's a strong showing by both ST regular Tina Rath and newcomer Giselle Leeb. It's all very exciting. In my opinion. Just vote, already.

Review - Dr Upex and the Great God Ing

Antony Oldknow's recent collection from Dragonfly Press  is subtitled 'Fifteen Weird Unexpected Stories'. I think we all have a rough idea what unexpected means, but what weird fiction might be is the subject of a lively and ongoing debate. So, how would I define this genre, or sub-genre? Characteristics of 'weird fiction' 1. Isolated/misfit characters, from M.R. James to Aickman 2. Dysfunctional, failed, or defunct relationships, with more than a whiff of the erotic 3. Erudite references - strange knowledge - Poe & Lovecraft spring to mind 4. Slightly archaic or otherwise odd language 5. Humour - somewhat rarer, but again Poe has a lot of it 6. Exotic locations - Blackwood is a good example 7. Fatalism - sense of grim inevitability, lack of self-determination (see 1) If I'm right, the weirdness factor is certainly high in Oldknow's tales. The title story concerns a military doctor recovering from serious injuries sustained in North Afr

Tatsuya Morino

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A Japanese take on Gothic illustration, here, taken from this page . See if you can guess what they are meant to be before you click on the link and find out.

Frustration!

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Our frustration that M.R. James is not as popularly recognised as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft will never cease. The above is a Tweet from the Twitter machine, courtesy of the publisher Shadows at the Door.  I'm sure a lot of people will agree with it, but others might quibble. I had a bit of a ponder and a few thoughts (or near-thoughts) emerged. 1, I think M.R. James is probably as well known as Lovecraft to bookish British people, perhaps a little more so. He is also fairly familiar to older TV viewers, like me, thanks to the BBC's dramatisations of his work in the Seventies. 2. Lovecraft produced a larger body of work than M.R. James, including several short novels, As an American writer he has a bigger 'pre-sold' audience than MRJ, an English academic whose output of fiction was relative slight. 3. Poe has had a lot longer to build up a head of steam and of course a great many film, TV, and radio adaptations of his work exist. Lovecraft has also done

Codex Zothique

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Cardinal Cox, Peterborough's premier poet of the numinous and strange, has published his eleventh pamphlet of Lovecraftian poetry. This collection of seven poems takes its inspiration from the works of Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961). I have to admit that I never really 'got' CAS, and I suspect I never will. I think he is one of those writers you have to meet at the right time. I first encountered Lovecraft (and M.R. James, and Algernon Blackwood) in my late teens. I also became a huge fan of Jack Vance around that time. Smith I did not encounter till much later, and his blend of heroic fantasy and horror left me cold. Impressed, but cold. That said, Codex Zothique is a good read. It could be argued that poetry is a better literary form than the short story when it comes to 'Smithian' ideas. Less is more, and all that. Thus the four stanzas of 'Hyperborea' convey the sense of ancient civilizations falling to be replaced by others more effectively than

A Podcast to the Curious

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It's been a good while since I mentioned the lads over at APttC , who took upon themselves the task of discussing every single story by M.R. James, plus his unfinished work and 'Stories I Have Tried to Write'. A Herculean task - all credit to Will Ross and Mike Taylor for undertaking it. If you haven't heard their cheerful, unpretentious opinions you should give them a try. You might not always agree with their views, but they always have something intelligent and thought-provoking to say. They've finished MRJ's fiction and now they've moved on to stories he admired. Not surprisingly Le Fanu features in the latest podcast, and Brian Showers of The  Swan River Press is their guest expert. The story they discuss is 'The Familiar'. Look out, owls! Illustration by M. Grant Kellermeyer of Oldstyle Tales Press , which is also well worth a look.

Poll for Best Story in ST 34!

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Yes, it's polling time, and if you look to the right (and possibly up a bit) you will see an opportunity to vote on your fave story in the latest issue. Winner will as usual be rewarded with the princely sum of twenty-five quid. What that will actually be worth in dollars by the time the poll ends is another matter, of course.