Saturday 30 September 2017

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace - A Forgotten Classic

Garth Marenghi's Darkplace is available on demand for anyone willing to sign up to Channel 4. It's free! Rewatching these shows made me regret that there are so few of them, but accept that it's not easy to do horror comedy that's at once so entertaining and so knowing. If you don't know Darkplace, here's Marenghi himself, plus his all-star cast.

Matthew Holness, Matt Berry, Alice Lowe, and Richard Ayoade are rather brilliant. The guest stars are also great fun, especially Julian Barratt and Noel Fielding. Each episode of Darkplace is dotted with cast interviews, in which the fascinating opinions of the creative team are shared. And Darkplace tackles some of the most vital issues of our time. I mean, cop a load of this from .

If this isn't enough to convince you that GMD is worth your while, listen to the author/actor himself read a sample of one of his bestsellers.

Now that's horror.

Friday 29 September 2017

As They Grow Older: Running Review 4.

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The next three stories in Stephen Cashmore's collection of children's stories all have a slightly familiar ring to me.

The innocuously-titled 'Teddies' has the familiar theme of children's toys that come to life. Oddly enough I always found this idea scary as a kid, and I'm pleased to say that the story has the right nightmarish feel.

'Wings' is an old-school framed narrative, in which granddad tells the sprog about something strange that happened on holiday many years ago. This one has a good menacing entity - a flying entity that attacks the family car in a manner that might be mistaken for a hailstorm. This one brought back memories of my own family holidays in Scotland.

Finally there is 'Doctor MacGregor', who lives on Witch Street next to the derelict old school There's a slight touch of Salem's Lot here, as local children fall victim to a mysterious disorder. Eventually the doctor realises that's going on, and a showdown is in order.

It's important to bear in mind that these are 'spooky stories to be read aloud'. This means brevity, and relative simplicity. Most effective ghost stories do work as spoken performances, and I think the tales in As They Grow Older have the authentic touch.

Friday 22 September 2017


The world has been waiting for...

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Of course, there are some seriously Lovecraftian overtones to this canine crime noir series.

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Borkchito has a Facebook page. Also Etsy.

I suppose an occult cat detective would be a tad counter-intuitive, what with cats generally being horror shorthand for Spooky Stuff Ahead. However, Robert Westall did write a cracking story about a vampiric entity being defeated by a brave cat - 'The Creatures in the House'. Just thought I'd include that for balance.

Thursday 21 September 2017

Psychic Vampire Repellent

Yes! It's that time of year again, when Hallowe'en looms and all things ghostly, ghoul-y, and moderately long-legged and beastly return from their summer holidays. Of course we are all terrified of being haunted, throttled, disembowelled, or otherwise messed up by creatures of darkness. So it's good to know that, for the smallest of fortunes, one can at least ward off one category of evil entities.

Yes, it's a bottle of squirty perfume that 'uses a combination of gem healing and deeply aromatic therapeutic oils, reported to banish bad vibes (and shield you from the people who may be causing them). Fans spray generously around their heads to safeguard their auras.'

You can find it on Gwyneth Patrow's Goop site. A snip at thirty US dollars, for which you get a 3.4 oz bottle.

Purchasers may be away with the fairies. (See previous post.)

Away With the Fairies

When I was young and just staring into space - probably imagining myself on a voyage to the Moon, or the Earth's core - grown-ups would remark that I was 'away with the fairies'. I don't know if people still say it nowadays, but the meaning is clear. Fairies, the Good Folk, the Little People, or whatever you call 'em, could enchant people. They might steal you bodily, or just nick your soul. But they were always out there, watching, waiting...

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Yes, you can spell it that way if you like. No, I'm not being all grumpy.

Fairies don't feature strongly in modern supernatural fiction for obvious reasons. The Victorian conception of the fairie-folk was twee and harmless. Shakespeare's Ariel and Puck were both powerful beings of a normal-ish size. But once supernatural beings get to be tiny and cute (sort of) any potential for unease is banished. Garden gnomes are scarier than 19th century fairies.

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Your basic Victorian fairies, here, escaping from a children's book to be photographed for the benefit of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. However, before all those sentimental authors and artists got their hands on the Little People, they were a bit bigger and more menacing. Which beings me to something I was vaguely aware of before, but which popped up on Twitter today, as part of #folklorethursday. I refer to the legendary Fairy Flag of Clan MacLeod.
It’s not clear how the flag got into the MacLeods’ possession – either a gift from the fairies to an infant chieftain, a gift to a chief from a departing fairy-lover, or a reward for defeating an evil spirit. But the flag likely originated somewhere far away from Scotland, potentially even in the Middle East.

The story about gift from a lover underlines the point that old-time fairies must have been somewhat larger than, say, Tinkerbell. Another aspect of the legend is that the flag can be waved three times to summon magical help for the clan, but will then be borne away, along with the standard bearer. All evocative stuff. Makes you wonder...

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Tuesday 19 September 2017

Where They're From

Ibrahim Ineke, whose graphic novels on weird themes I reviewed here and here, has a short online piece here. 'Where They're From' is another strange story with a modern setting, but with a classic feel. An invalid is convinced that a portal to another reality exists. A friend agrees to go and investigate. What she finds is both surprising and oddly appropriate. Well worth a look - as I've mentioned before Ineke's work has a Seventies feel, which is right up my street.

Update: Sorry, failed to link to the story. Link fixed!

Good Omens

I haven't read all of the late Sir Terry Pratchett's books, but I've read quite a few of 'em. One of the best, for me, is Good Omens, his collaboration with Neil Gaiman. So it's good news that the BBC and Amazon have joined forces to produce a TV adaptation. What's more, it stars two of my favourite actor persons as a mismatched apocalypse-fighting team.

David Tennant and Michael Sheen as a rather odd couple...
'Confirmed to be joining Sheen and Tennant in the cast are Adria Arjona (Anathema Device), Nina Sosanya (Sister Mary Loquacious), Jack Whitehall (Newt), Michael McKean (Shadwell), Miranda Richardson (Madame Tracy), Ned Dennehy (Hastur) and Ariyon Bakare (Ligur).'
It looks good. Note that Hastur is in there, in a big shout-out to the deeply weird. If you don't know the book, now might be a good time to read it. 

Sunday 17 September 2017

I have a new book out! Or at least, it's available for pre-order in paperback and for Kindle.

"What's this one about, then, you sad old git?"

Glad you asked me, imaginary person! It's about a cathedral tower that by rights should have fallen down years ago, but which seems to be held up by necromantic means. Oh yes. This bit of ungodly folderol leads to all sorts of problems. Behind the curse stands (or hovers) a supernatural being with a Plan, which I will reveal in due course etc. Opposing the forces of evil are the usual motley band of Scooby-esque characters. Includes violent death, ghosts, scrying, psychometry, and all that sort of thing.

Saturday 16 September 2017

Ghosts & Scholars Bumper Bundlette!

I keep forgetting to mention the excellent Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter (and website), perhaps because I assume that everyone who's into supernatural fiction must know about it already. But I may be wrong! So I will mention editor Ro Pardoe's excellent journal now. Not only is G&S #32 full of interesting stuff, as always, but it comes with a special booklet. Look, this me holding them up.

Yes, that pervy looking individual behind the booklets is me. Sorry. Yes, the cover on the left is quite something. Daniel McGahey illustrated his own story rather brilliantly.

The point is that 'Ting-a-Ling-a-Ling' is a splendid long story about automata that owes something to 'The Haunted Dolls' House' and 'The Diary of Mr. Poynter'. Now would be a rather good time to subscribe to G&S on the 'buy one, get one free' principle.

Thursday 14 September 2017

As They Grow Older - Running Review 3.

Moving on with Stephen Cashmore's collection of children's ghost stories we come to 'The House at the End of Witch Street'. This is one of a series of tales about strange doing in the eponymous thoroughfare, which is 'the longest street in town'. Lots of haunting potential, then. In this story a boy called Jonathon glimpses something in the window of the house and decides to investigate. The result is an encounter that gives the lad a bit of a fright, and leads to the house becoming vacant. There's a Ray Bradbury feel about this one, with a boy inhabiting a world of perilous imaginings he can't really share with the grown-up world.

The next story is 'Sunset'. Jenny and Bill stay at a beach house with their aunt and uncle. Jenny has a vision of an old woman with a dog who 'isn't really there'. Jenny investigates (this book is full of intrepid children who probe mysteries) and has a disturbing experience, but does not resolve the apparent haunting. However, the truth is revealed many years later in a clever twist ending.

'The Scariest Moment' was inspired, the author explains. by Hodgson's Carnacki story 'The Horse of the Invisible'. It also introduces the Spook, a teacher who tells seasonal ghostly tales. This one has a touch of Robert Westall about it, as a series of strange messages appear on a blackboard. Suspicion falls on a prankster called Billy. But when the teacher stays behind in his classroom at night something far more disturbing is revealed.

More if this review soon. And just a reminder that, if you buy a copy of As They Grow Older you'll be making a donation to a very worthy cause. See link above for details.

Wednesday 6 September 2017

'The English House'

The final story in Darkly Haunting came as a surprise to me. After Peter Holmans's take on Britain's murky past in 'No Surrender' I had expected D.P. Watt's story to be very different. And it is, to be fair, but it remains resolutely political.

'The English House' is set in the mid-21st century, decades after Brexit has caused the unravelling of the EU. The result is a bloody, Balkanised Europe, with a never-ending series of brush-fire wars killing off what remains of the continent's youth. An elderly English couple living in rural France become obsessed with 'La Maison Anglaise', a seemingly abandoned house near their own. Their daughter, when young, imagined the English House to be full of fascinating and fantastical residents. As the brutal reality of a collapsing culture becomes unendurable the discovery of the daughter's diary triggers a series of unusual events.

It is hard to classify this story, as it borrows both from science fiction and some of the classics of weird fiction. There's a distinct Blackwoodian feel to the treatment of the 'haunted' house. Above all, though, 'The English House' is about escapism, the way in which people whose lives have failed seek solace in the impossible. Or, put simply, I don't know what to make of it. Suffice to say that it's a remarkable tale, well up the author's usual standard.

And that ends this running review of Darkly Haunting. I hope you've found it informative, or at least vaguely helpful.

Monday 4 September 2017

'No Surrender'

The fourth story in Darkly Haunting is by Peter Holman, who adopts a bleak and gritty approach suited to his subject matter. This is a story about Britain's Dirty War, the 'asymmetric' conflict in Northern Ireland (and elsewhere) that stretched from the early Seventies into the Nineties. Thousands died, many bodies are still missing, and a great deal of covert activity by the UK government's security agencies remains secret.

In 'No Surrender' (a very familiar phrase in Northern Irish politics, if you didn't know) a former British agent, Cowan, receives an unusual item in the post. It's a long-outdated passport for one of the missing, a young Catholic that Cowan and his colleagues pressured into becoming an informer. The logical explanation is that the Continuation IRA, or some related outfit, has tracked Cowan down in retirement and is going to kill him. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that something stranger is happening.

This is a compelling story that combines elements of Le Carre and the traditional ghost story. The world of 'spooks' meets real ghosts, in other words. Cowan and his old friend Benson, who tries to provide reassurance, are convincing, rounded characters - men who have done questionable things but see themselves as patriots, decent blokes. As Cowan encounters more phantoms from his past we share his anxious, boxed-in feeling, and when Benson is drawn into the weird 'conspiracy' it feels right.

Fans of old-school ghost stories might not like this one so much as its predecessors, as it probes old wounds many of us have tried to forget. But it's a memorable story, as unrelenting as history itself. And that almost brings us to the end of the book, but I shall return soon with my view of one more tale.

Saturday 2 September 2017

'The Black Dog of Zero'

The third story in the Sarob anthology Darkly Haunting is by the Welsh surrealist Rhys Hughes. It concerns Colin, who we meet in the pub with his mates, counting down to his twentieth birthday. Due to a mix-up Colin's friends go on to a club without him, and he can't find them. Yet they remain convinced that he was with them. What might this have to do with the black dog Colin encounters on his futile, drunken quest?

We move on to Colin's thirtieth, and this time thing seem set to go well. He is on a winter holiday with his girlfriend. But again a glimpse of a mysterious black dog coincides with confusion, loss, a sense of failure and betrayal. And so the pattern repeats itself as the protagonist reaches forty, and fifty, as the black dog of zero returns to blight Colin's landmark birthdays.

A black dog is an ambiguous creature in folklore, sometimes hostile, occasionally benevolent. Here the creature embodies the obsession anyone might feel as they close another decade having not achieved what they hoped to. Eventually, when he reaches sixty, Colin decides to wait for the dog with a loaded shotgun. But the confrontation does not go as one might expect. An enigmatic tale about growing old, then, and of a man haunted by the familiar 'What if...?'

That's all for now. More from this running review in due course. Just two more tales to go!

Medium (1985)

Image result for film polish medium 1985I stumbled across this Polish film on Amazon Prime and started to watch it. I then kept watching it until the end - my usual approach to films. Medium is pretty good, not least because it defies most of the expectations of a Western horror fan.

The story is set in Sopot in 1933. Sopot is, I have since learned, on the 'Polish riviera' and is part of a tri-city complex with Gdansk and Gdynia. It certainly makes a beautiful and fascinating setting. In 1933 it was part of East Prussia, and Hitler had just seized absolute power. The film leaves no doubt about this, with a regular diet of posters and Brownshirts.

A female medium and her astrologer brother are attempting to detect a rival psychic. All they know is that he is controlling a group of seemingly random individuals. A bearded man in a hat and trench-coat wakes up on a beach. A dapper man arriving by train seems to be in a trance. An attractive teacher abandons her pupils and goes to a museum to steal a red dress.

It's all very Eastern European  cinema, dear me yes. But interesting. And all the action revolves around a suitably spooky old house. This one, in fact.

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It emerges that the man on the beach is a boozy detective called Selin. His deputy, Krank, has gone full Nazi and is out to replace his boss. The local gauleiter needs substantial evidence for this, but Selin seems determined to provide it as he experiences a to of missing time. Selin and Krank slowly put some of the pieces together and link weird occurrences to Orwicz, the owner of an aquarium. Orwicz, as a small boy, witnessed the murder of his parents. He is apparently using his extraordinary powers to re-enact the crime. But why?

Suffice to say that Orwicz, who spends the entire movie in a diabetic coma, has come up with a truly remarkable plan. The film's climax includes sex, violence, more Nazis, and a not-entirely-satisfactory conclusion. I struggled to interpret the final scenes as some kind of metaphor, given the historical setting, but higher meaning eluded me. Suffice to say this film is absorbing, unconventional, and successfully merges horror with police procedural and art-house cinema. The acting and direction are first-rate. If you're a subtitle-capable person you should enjoy this one.

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...