Monday 31 July 2017

'Playing in Their Own Time'

The best story I've read in Cold Iron is by Tracy Fahey. It uses a classic setup, the ghost story investigator who finds the subject of their TV show becomes all too personal. The setting, too, is familiar - the haunted castle. But these familiar ingredients are served up in near-perfect fashion.

The ghost hunter is presenter of an Irish show with none of the budget or glitz of its American counterpart. The story begins with a flashback to the protagonist's first visit to the castle, and the glimpse they get of a little girl in Victorian dress. A follow-up programme is proposed, and it transpires that now there are two little girls, playing 'in their own time'. There is also a chilling, perfect ending that is subtle, intelligent, and completely convincing.

I can't really say any more, except that Fahey is a writer I will watch out for in future. More of this running review soon!

Saturday 29 July 2017

'The Undertaker's Boy'

I enjoyed Karen Turner's short, bittersweet contribution to Cold Iron. The story begins with one of the heftiest cliches in the business, though.

I'll say right at the outset, I don't believe in ghosts.

We all know that, in an anthology of ghost stories, there is only one way this can go. So why bother writing that as a first sentence? Oh well. The point is that Mr Barclay, the undertaker, gets a work experience kid from the local school. The boy, Adam, seems nice enough, but he soon puts his sensitive fingers to work by touching dead people. Then Adam tells Mr Barclay things that he couldn't possibly know about the dead. I particularly liked the environmentalist annoyed at being embalmed, as he wanted to decompose nice and quickly in his cardboard coffin.

The end of the story is as conventional as the beginning, but I was still pleasantly surprised by the twist. It works, which is what matters. And the author conveys a great deal of humane insight in a few pages. That counts for a lot, too.

So, another story down, but not out! More of this running review soon.

Friday 28 July 2017

'How to be Invisible'

Chris Barnham's contribution to Cold Iron: Ghost Stories for the 21st Century  is a variation on the modern theme of social isolation. The protagonist makes a big mistake - the sort that involves an attractive work colleague at the office Christmas party. His wife finds out and he is forced to move into a manky flat and have limited contact with his young daughter.

So far, so conventional. What makes the story a supernatural tale, for me at least, is the way the character's shame-fuelled isolation slowly overwhelms him. He cannot bear to face old friends, is unable to go into work, eventually resorts to only going out at night or in the very early morning when the risk of a chance encounter is minimal.

This bleak, well-crafted tale ends with the recognition that the protagonist has essentially obliterated himself by destroying all the relationships that make him real. Writing in the third person present Barnham suits style to content very well - the immediacy of his anti-hero's plight comes across all too well.

This is the first story in the anthology that does not involve a conventional ghost, so much as a man whose only option is to become a ghost. As such it represents a definite shift in tone and approach, and is all the more welcome for that.

More of this running review soon!

Restore Faith in Democracy - Vote in the Best Story Poll!

Supernatural Tales 35Perhaps it should be titled 'Your Favourite Story', but what the heck. 

The point is that you can vote for the story you like best in the latest issue. Or - and this is a bit of a radical change - you can vote for more than one story! Oh yes, multiple answers are permitted if you really can't decide. 

The poll should be over to the top right. Let me know if it isn't working, you can't see it, or it insulted you or your family etc.

As They Grow Older

As they grow older - Cover revised.png

My redoubtable assistant editor at ST, Stephen Cashmore, has published a collection of his own spooky stories
As the title implies this is a book about childhood - more precisely, it's a series of stories the author told to his own children over many years. The tales begin simply, with stories for the very young, and end with what's loosely termed teenage or young adult fiction. It's a neat idea, and not one I've ever seen in ghostly fiction before. As such it is a study in childhood, in family life, and in the development of a writer's technique. 

I will have a more detailed review of this professionally-produced book in due course. In the meantime, mosey on over to the site to find out a little bit more. Oh, and for every copy sold a pound goes to cancer research - another good reason to check it out!

Wednesday 26 July 2017

Tarot, Tarot, Who's Yer Spooky Friend?

Apart from the terrible 'joke' in the title, what do we have here? Only H.R. Giger's designs for the Tarot, that's all. You can see the evolutionary  link to that big scary alien.

The same article has a link to Dali's Tarot designs - I did not know about these either!


Here's a video about Dali's Universal Tarot.

Tuesday 25 July 2017


The third story in Cold Iron: Ghost Stories for the 21st Century is by Kitty Fitzgerald. She's a familiar name to me, having had radio dramas produced by Radio 4. Her story is written in the present tense, giving a dramatic immediacy. Her protagonist, Polly, is a woman who has been diagnosed with cancer, and is taking a bath when a strange young man appears in her flat.

The obvious part of the story is the ghost. I don't think the author intends you to see the intruder as a normal human being. Terry is a ghost, even thought he does bring a bottle. Terry's behaviour is that of the narcissistic obsessive, a stalker type who resents the fact that Polly has never noticed him. He proceeds to lecture his hapless victim with gibberish about unconventional cancer treatments while Polly tries to think of a way to avoid being attacked by this nutter.

The ending is of course the revelation that Terry died from cancer at exactly the time he appeared in Polly's flat. Given that we know this, or something very like it, must be the ending, what are we supposed to make of the story? It's a little flimsy, as Terry is unpleasant but not very substantial. Perhaps the real message is that, if you have cancer, you have to put up with a lot of peripheral crap from stupid and/or unpleasant people.

Another instalment in this running review tomorrow, with luck!

'Support You Ever More'

The second story in Cold Iron is by Ian Harris, a new name to me. It's a good story that focuses on a key aspect of British life - the way most men (and quite a few women) feel it necessary to support football teams that aren't much cop. In Harris's story the protagonist travels a lot, and frequently attends lower league games in manky stadiums. He finds himself in one such venue on a damp November day where the only other fans nearby are a foul-mouthed ranter in the seat directly behind
him and a small boy on his own.

The atmosphere is well evoked, with its account of a game between 'two groups of low-division cloggers'. I find soccer's appeal elusive, and Harris only confirms my view that following a team - even a good one - through a never ending cycle of triumph and tragedy would be like opting into one of the lesser circle of hell. The mentality of the football fan is under scrutiny here, with the unnamed narrator contrasting the sad, lonely boy with the cursing idiot.

The author leaves it up to the reader to guess where the ghostly element might be, here. I guessed wrong, perhaps inevitably. The ending is more ambiguous, and far sadder, than I assumed. An apparently slight tale, this, but one that lingers in the mind as it sums up the bleak, self-torturing futility of compulsive fandom.

Perhaps I'll lighten up a bit for the next one!

Mark Gatiss on E.F. Benson

Interesting tie-in vid to a new collection of readings. Sounds good to me. I was surprised that Gatiss, no slouch in the horror department, should have 'discovered' Benson's spook stories after Mapp and Lucia. But life's like that, a tad unpredictable.

Monday 24 July 2017

'The Last Checkout' by Wendy Robertson

The first story in Cold Iron is an interesting variation on what is often (rather derisively, and snobbishly) termed 'women's fiction'. Esme is a young widow who is coming to terms with the fact that the death of her unimaginative, controlling husband Maurice was not a bad thing. She gradually abandons the rigid routines he imposed upon her and starts to spread her wings a little.

One of the many things the ghastly Maurice disapproved of was Esme's friendship with a Big Issue seller - a Muslim refugee whose face has a 'closed Madonna look'. Esme's bereavement allows her to reconnect with this young woman in a peculiar way which involves an embarrassing incident in a supermarket. The theme is one of liberation, an imperfect freedom achieved despite life's injustices, great or small. The ghostly aspect is well-handled, and I admit that - despite being an old hand - it took me a few beats to realise just what was going on.

So, a good start to the anthology with this assured, humane tale. More pithy observations from yours truly soon!

Cold Iron: 21st Century Ghost Stories

Cold Iron: 21st Century Ghost StoriesA new review copy means a new running review, this time for an anthology produced here in my native North East. Iron Press, founded by Peter Mortimer, is one of those regional small presses that publishes  poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction. Cold Iron is described thus:

A collection of seventeen ghost tales, whittled down from a total of almost 200 submitted from writers both established and unknown, bring a selection both paying homage to the tradition of the ghost story and placing it firmly in the context of our own times.

Thus, ghosts appear on football terraces, from cancer wards, on the floor of TV shows, on the late night service bus, over a Sunday dinner and at a supermarket checkout. These terrifying tales pay homage to the traditions of the genre, but tackle peculiarly 21st Century topics.

I have to admit I always feel some irritation at the notion that it takes 'proper writers' to make the ghost story an effective modern literary form. It's not as if all of us genre-hounds are just noodling around self-indulgently like an M.R. James tribute band. However, let us set that aside and consider that among the contributors here is Charles Wilkinson, who is certainly 'one of us', and whose recommendation led to me getting my hands on Cold Iron in the first place. This tells me the standard is pretty high, and I'm looking forward to seeing what Charles and the other sixteen authors have come up with. 

Saturday 22 July 2017

Issue 35 available for Kindle folk

Supernatural Tales 35: Summer 2017 by [Longhorn, David, Grant, Helen, Joiner, Mat, Valentine, Mark, Howard, John, Alford, Andrew]

Here's the US link.

Here's the UK link.

Cover at by Sam Dawson.

Good, innit?

If by 'good' one means 'I will never go near a tree again'.

Thursday 20 July 2017

'Warmth in the Winter'

The last story in Jordan Anderson's collection is an ambitious novella. It has overtones of Algernon Blackwood and Jack London, in that it's a tale of the snowy wilderness. It's a weird tale, but the focus is as much on the protagonist's suffering as the strange forces that besiege his isolated home.

Old Jack is a loner, a man who lost his one love in tragic circumstances and has withdrawn from the world. He bought a cabin in the wild from a man who warned him not to go outside during the darkest days of winter. The supernatural force, when it appears, is satisfyingly bizarre and menacing - a tide of blackness that sweeps down and engulfs his valley.

As the tale unfolds we learn more of Jack's background. Past and present become entangled as childhood trauma repeats itself, with variations on a theme. However, there's a strong suggestion that he finds a kind of solace at the end. Overall it's a satisfying conclusion to a somewhat uneven collection. At his best the author is very good indeed, but his work would benefit from firm editing. He has a tendency to (in my opinion) over-write and pile on too much verbiage. Cleaner lines would have made the longer tales more memorable.

And that rounds off my running review of The Things That Grow With Us. Next up comes a new collection of British ghost stories by authors from outside the field. Prepare for some forthright opinions - praise, blame, the chucking around of epithets. It's all here, folks.

Monday 17 July 2017

RIP George and Martin

George Romero died last weekend at the age of 77. He was a true innovator, someone who - working to a very tight budget - made movies that were iconic and wildly entertaining. Night of the Living Dead rebooted the zombie movie, and made possible later hits such as The Walking Dead (1968). Before Romero the zombie was a minor horror menace, usually found in period pieces such as Hammer's enjoyably camp Plague of the Zombies. After NotLD and its quasi-sequel, Day of the Dead zombies escaped their Haitian origins and starting roaming out streets and shopping malls. Oh, and they could come into your house and get you as well.

We have also lost Matin Landau, a much-loved TV and film actor. He often appeared in genre fiction, notably the original Mission Impossible and the British sci-fi saga Space: 1999. His daughter Juliet played Drusilla, a major recurring character in Buffy and its spin-off Angel. Both had the distinctive Landau features - 'aristocratic', dark-eyed, attractive in a slightly hectic, on-the-edge way. Landau's only Oscar was in the quasi-genre movie, Ed Wood. Landau played the ageing, drug-addled Bela Lugosi.

Friday 14 July 2017

'Angelic Tendencies'

Full disclosure - the next story in this collection is a horror-fantasy called 'Burials: The Speaking Dead'. While it's not badly written it is way outside my wheelhouse and reads like a fragment of a longer work. I didn't like it at all, so I'm moving on to something I found more to my taste. With a few qualifications.

Firstly, a general point. there is a tendency in modern horror to use child abuse as a convenient plot device. I think it is as questionable as using rape as a plot device. Now anything goes for a writer, and censorship - including self-censorship - is wrong. But I wish horror writers would find something better to say about childhood in the context of weird/supernatural fiction. After all, if every sixth or seventh story you read pivoted on a woman being raped wouldn't you think it was a bit much?

Right, ran over. 'Angelic Tendencies' is about a little girl called Abigail who survives a car crash that kills her parents. She is adopted by Aunt Cheryl and Uncle Reed. The latter sexually abuses Abigail, who prays for help. Angelic beings manifest themselves in her room and start giving her advice. But are they real, or the products of a desperate child's imagination?

This isn't bad, and the descriptions of the 'angels' is rather Machenesque, as they manifest in a benighted forest. They are like 'sagging lumpy balloons' emitting sounds like 'knuckles cracking and liquids gurgling'. Uncle Reed comes to the bad end her deserves. Then Abigail is left to her life with the monstrous, powerful beings watching over her. Is this, we are left to wonder, altogether a good thing? There's a slight X-Files vibe to the ending, when an implant is put into the back of the girl's neck.

Its an enjoyable but rather imperfect story. There's an obvious plot-hole- after Aunt Cheryl appears to take Abigail from the hospital, she disappears. There is not even a suggestion of complicity in Reed's vile behaviour - the wife simply vanishes as if the author has forgotten her. In terms of form and style the killing of Reed is over-done, dragged out at inordinate length. Too much descriptive writing bores me, especially when it gives the impression the author hasn't really figured out what his Big Bad really is. But these are quibbles - it's basically a decent story that would have benefited from firm editing.

Nearly done with The Things That Grow With Us. Fingers crossed for the final tale!

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Supernatural Tales 35

Supernatural Tales 35

Cover pic by Sam Dawson.

The print-on-demand version of the magazine is now available from here. It's priced at £2.95 plus postage, which doesn't seem too steep to me for what you get. Seven jolly good stories, covering every possible topic from ancient legends to weird local customs to entities from beyond our mundane realm. And then some.
'Absolute Possession' by Charles Wilkinson
'The Scarlet Door' by Mark Valentine 
'A Russian Nesting Demon' by Andrew Alford 
'The Subliminals' Pt 1. by Michael Chislett 
'To Utter Dust' by Mat Joiner ' 
The House at Twilight' by John Howard 
'Gold' by Helen Grant
The ebook version will be available on Amazon in the very near future. I will be sending out copies to contributors, reviewers, and postal subscribers very soon - please bear with me, this one has been a bit tricky to get together.

Sunday 9 July 2017

'The Gore Hole'

The fourth story in The Things That Grow With Us by Jordan Anderson confirms my suspicion that he is much better at mainstream horror than the genre-spanning stuff (i.e. sci-fi- or fantasy-horror). 'The Gore Hole' is the story of a spooky abandoned house in small-town America, the kind of place where kids go for a dare. So of course some do. The twist is that one of the kids has been there already. He didn't exactly get the tee-shirt, either...

Young Sam and his floppy, lovable dog Isabelle visited the old house. When he is half-cajoled, half-bullied into going back he finds that in the clearing where the house once stood is a tree stump. It seems harmless enough, but then a strange force starts to exert itself. One by one the boys are forced to move up to the stump, to kneel, and to put their heads into a hole in the trunk. What happens then is lurid yet bleak. Sam's mother, we learn, warned him that it's always okay to run away from a threat. Unfortunately by the time he thinks of this sage advice it is too late.

'The Gore Hole' is somewhat over long, and it's never spelled out why what happens happens. A somewhat haphazard series of images tumble over one another, and perhaps the author over-eggs the pudding. That said, the ending is convincingly bleak. In a way this is a coming-of-age story, if one accepts that the end of childhood is the beginning of death, or perhaps death-in-life.

And on that cheery note, enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Friday 7 July 2017

'Sand and Wine'

The Things That Grow With Us by Jordan Anderson is nothing if not diverse. From Lovecraftian space adventure and (un)heroic fantasy we move on to a small domestic tale of loneliness and imagination. 

Dani and her mother arrive at a run-down house by the sea. Mommy has a drink problem, Daddy's no longer on the scene, and Dani likes elephants because they are 'big and dopey and sweet'. The latter point becomes significant as the little girl explores the barely-remembered house while her mother gets sozzled in front of the TV. She finds a strange mirror with an elaborately decorated frame. Images of animals fascinate Dani, and then she breaks off part of the frame that happens to be a carved elephant.

It transpires that Dani is ill, perhaps terminally so. She collapses, clutching the piece of wood, and awakes to a new world. She goes outside, down to the sea. Dreams and reality merge as Dani gets her wish, while Mom sleeps on. It's a beautiful ending, on that is just ambiguous enough. This small, unpretentious tale is the best so far.

More of this runing review tomorrow, probably!

'The Tides of Oblivion'

The second story in Jordan Anderson's new collection is a very different kind of tale from the first. We move from the cosmic horrors and too-easy conventions of Lovecraftian pastiche to a quirky tale of fantasy. The setting is one of those taverns in the wasted zone between the realms of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Terry Pratchett. Everyone is depraved, drunk, violent, or preferably all three. Not a chartered accountant in sight. Enter a youth who seems to be out of his depth among the brutal, canny company. But is he?

This story was apparently created as a result of a challenge thrown down by the author's writing group, and it shows. The tale is rich in atmosphere but a bit short on plot and characterisation. It's very violent, full of mighty oaths of the sweary kind, and has a sort of an ending. The final image is one that stayed with me, but more from incongruity than anything else.

Okay, maybe third time's the charm! Find out tomorrow what I think of the next story in The Things That Grow With Us.

Thursday 6 July 2017

The Things That Grow With Us - Review

Image result for jordan anderson things that grow with us

Here we go with another of my sort-of-popular running reviews! I have a lot of books lined up, in fact, so I need to be Disciplined, Efficient, and Other Unfamiliar Things. Right, let's go.

The Things That Grow With Us is a self-published collection by Jordan Anderson. Self-published can mean a lot of things. Yes, a lot of self-published stuff is terrible. But it's arguable that the next Harry Potter will be self-published simply because who in their right mind what's to go through that many rejections? I'm glad to say that TTTGWU is not by any means a bad book. It has its faults, judging from what I've read so far, but these are not so significant as its virtues. And what book is without flaw, anyway?

Right, we're in Lovecraftian territory. That's your first an final warning. The book begins with a quote from the film Event Horizon, which you may recall is about a cathedral-shaped starship that visits a kind of cosmic hell and returns with a strange cargo. The first story. 'The Further We Soar Into Madness', takes this idea as its quasi-theme, and features an epigraph from Lovecraft's 'The Festival'. And yes, there are tentacles.

The story is really two narrative threads that are interwoven, sort of. We begin with a very familiar scene, in which Edward Jamison secures a safe deposit box left by his dear old dad. Needless to say, this being Lovecraft country, the box does not contain a stash of Kruger Rands. Instead he finds a journal, and a mysterious amulet. The action then shifts back in time and far away in space, as we find out what happened when Jamison Snr. went to Europa, the icy and probably oceanic moon of Jupiter.

This is where I had a problem. I don't think the earth-based palaver with the Jamison inheritance adds anything to the story. Opening manila envelopes that have been sealed with wax and so forth seems frankly absurd in the context of a futuristic tale. It is mere window dressing of a familiar sort. Without it, admittedly, the story would just be a tale of space explorers encountering monsters. And it is, really. The scenes on Europa in which not one but several expeditions attempt to contact a Huge Thing under the icy surface are well done. But I felt that the mind-blasting horror of it all simply wasn't there. We have seen this too often to justify overblown prose.

'I seek that which man has been evolutionarily bred to fear, the darkness of alien oceans and the black behind the veils of reality'.

There's far too much of this and it doesn't really work for me.

The same can be said for the backstories of various characters. They are just not that interesting. It's as if Lovecraft spent the first quarter of At the Mountains of Madness giving biographies of the captains and first officers of his explorers' ships. He did not do this because it would have added nothing to the story bar padding. I think the tendency of Hollywood to bore us with the bios of cardboard cut-out characters has spread too far into written horror, to be honest.

That said, 'The Further We Soar Into Madness' is entertaining in spurts. It's solidly constructed, just badly cluttered and over-long.

Stay tuned for my take on the next story, which is a very different beast entirely.

Monday 3 July 2017

'Lost Estates'

This is part of a running review of  Lost Estates  by Mark Valentine (Swan River Press 2024) The title story of the collection! And it begin...