Wednesday 31 January 2018

The Vault (2017)

I like hybrid ghost stories. What do I mean by that? Well, a story in which the ghost is not the only thing going on. The ghost isn't just haunting away like mad, but has a 'metabolism', as the late Robert Westall put it. This means there has to be a story as to why the haunting has been triggered. The Vault, a hybrid heist horror movie, is a good example of this.

The film begins with sirens as emergency services race to a fire. The fire has been set as a distraction by a gang who take over the bank with brutal efficiency. They want money, of course - but it soon becomes apparent that they are not just a regular bunch of perps out for the cash. This is a family affair, in which two estranged sisters have teamed up to try and help their hapless brother, who is in debt to some Very Bad People.

This puts an interesting moral ambiguity into the mix, and The Vault could have worked quite well as a heist movie. But, as the title implies, there's something else down there. The staff don't like to go down to the old bank vault, a distinctly underlit area of the establishment. But when it becomes clear that the cash available at ground level won't cover the debt, the sisters have no choice but to change plans. Fortunately they have some cutting gear (a nice touch, as it's central to their escape plan). So it seems that they will get the dosh after all...

But no. The vault is haunted, thanks to the horrific events that took place at the bank decades earlier. The deputy manager of the bank (James Franco with an excellent old-school moustache) tries to keep things from spiralling out of control. But, one by one, the gang members are taken out by spooks. In that sense it's a very familiar horror flick. But it's just good enough to stand apart from the slew of supernatural mass-killing movies thanks to the script, direction, and performances. As well as Franco, Taryn Manning and Francesca Eastwood excel as the very different, very feisty crim sisters.

'The Templar Cup' scoops the readers' poll

Supernatural Tales 36Congratulations to Paul Lewis, first-time contributor to ST, for his triumph in the poll for best tale in the latest issue. It's a cracking title, isn't it? And 'The Templar Cup' beat off some stiff competition from some excellent writers.

If you've not read the story yet, get ye to the links page and order a copy of ST 36 at once! And we'll say no more about your lackadaisical approach to things.

Tuesday 30 January 2018

'Inside Out'

Ruschelle Dillon's story - the last in WHA 2 - is a grotesque horror-comedy about our shallow, narcissistic, commodified culture. Shea is desperate to lost 15 pounds to win an obscure beauty pageant, and she has to do it fast. She is referred to a Chinese restaurant, whose owner has a remarkable weight loss gimmick. Needless to say, Shea's fixation on weight loss does not bode well for her future.

While it's a bit baggy round the edge 'Inside Out' is an enjoyable story, poking fun at the world's obsession with looks at the expense of character, empathy, and indeed basic common sense. The horror element is neatly done, and the conclusion satisfyingly unpleasant. It also makes me wonder - not for the first time - about what goes on in restaurant kitchens.

And that's all from this enjoyable anthology. While a bit patchy, WHA 2 is pretty good. As well as a number of very good stories it contains an entertaining essay by Horrorella (really) on the changing status of women in the genre.

So, that's the end of a running review that has introduced me to quite a few interesting authors. More of my opinions coming soon. In the meantime, check out WHA 2 at the link above.

Monday 29 January 2018

'Mother Love'

Alison Faye's story in WHA 2 is an interesting variation on a theme explored by - among others - Ray Bradbury.

A boy struggles to make the best of a situation in which there can be no good outcome. The style and setting are olde worlde, but there's nothing quaint or twee about the imagery. Poor little Ernest's mother has lost it, his father has gone, and the body of a baby brother is occupying a lot of his attention. Worthy gentlemen try to gain admittance to the house, but Ernest is having none of it.

There is a mad logic to it all, and the engine of the story is the way children are sometimes forced to confront situations that would defeat most adults. While relatively little happens, the overall feel is of a  dark, twisted version of one of those familiar Victorian paintings like 'The Awakening Conscience'. This one is not taken from the life, though.

So, another well-written tale from this interesting anthology, and we're nearly done. The last story is coming up!

Sunday 21 January 2018


There are rather a lot of dead women in WHA 2, and I suppose that's inevitable given the genre and the society it reflects.

'My heart is starting to slow. The flutter and lag of its failing burns in my chest.'

In 'Taphonomy' by Melanie Waghorne we see a murder of the sort that provides the grist to many a TV crime show, but from the victim's viewpoint. Here there is no questionable focus on the serial killer as pseudo-Byronic genius (a shopworn gimmick I am heartily sick of). Not only that, but the killing is not the end. The victim experiences the process of bodily decay, as nature reclaims her flesh, covers her bones with foliage, begins to assimilate her. It is a fascinating process, though not for the squeamish.

'My rot begins to kill the plants around me, saturated as they are in me. The maggots hatch.'

Eventually she is discovered by a dog, and this phase of her story ends. In its way, it's a beautiful, even hopeful tale. It makes for an interesting contrast with the previous tale, in tone and content. Another winner, then, in this anthology, as we approach the inevitable end.

Saturday 20 January 2018

'The Girl in the Stairwell'

Women in Horror Annual 2 (WHA) by [Katz, C. Rachel]

Victoria Dalpe's contribution to WHA 2 is a remarkably powerful vignette that genuinely blindsided your humble reviewer.

A young woman sees the body of another young woman - a stranger. The narrator is just one of a group of onlookers, and has no special knowledge of the death. But she climbs down into the stairwell to kneel next to the dead girl and indulges in an ostentatious display of grief. She also steals the dead girl's ID. When the polcie arrive she gives a bogus statement, claiming they were friends on a night out.

She then leverages her ill-gotten celebrity to have sex with an attractive man, all the while gloating/obsessing over her narcissistic antics.

All in all, it's a telling portrait of what might be termed the Trumpian society - nothing is true, all that matters is fame, self-confidence, and self-gratification. Truly a horror story for our time. And all packed into so few words. Victoria Dalpe is a very gifted writer.

Thursday 18 January 2018

Peter Wyngarde

Peter Wyngarde, whose birth place, name, and date are all disputed (1927? 1933?) was a British actor best known for his appearance in TV shows that were quite determinedly cool. He found fame as Jason King, the playboy/agent in Department S, which spawned a spinoff entitled (logically enough) Jason King. This is what he looked like...

After being repeatedly mobbed by female fans it later emerged that Wyngarde was gay. Unfortunately not entirely shocking revelation was part of a wider scandal-sheet story that marred his later career. But long before Jason King sashayed into view on Wyngarde put in an excellent performance in the 1962 film Night of the Eagle, based on Fritz Leiber's novel Conjure Wife. If you haven't seen it, it's worth seeking out this low-budget, black and white production. What it lacks in resources it makes up for in excellent casting, good direction, and a solid script.

Oh, and he also appeared (uncredited) as the ghost of the evil valet Peter Quint in The Innocents (1961). On a personal note, I thought his performance as Dracula at the Sunderland Empire in the mid-Seventies was pretty darn good, too.

Friday 12 January 2018

'Eyes Like Kali'

Another first-rate story from WHA 2. Author Tanya Smith gives us a title with a classic, pulpy feel, heralding a modern, psychological tale of horror. Dr Chakrabarti is dozing during his shift at a psychiatric facility in the US. He dreams of an outcast girl in a filthy sari, a ghost who died in the filth of an Indian city. He wakes to a different kind of nightmare in the Danvers State Hospital, where he tries to do his job well in distinctly trying circumstances.

This is an intensely atmospheric, not to say hallucinatory, tale. The black eyes of the ghost-girl remind the doctor Kali, with her necklace of skulls. He is surrounded by dangerous mental patients, and violence erupts during his night shift. An image of a third eye - graffiti by a disturbed inmate - blends with dream images. Chakrabarti tries to type up his notes on a female patient who has hanged herself. The scent of jasmine and rain obtrudes, the smell of the city where the girl died.

I am not sure if this story has a message, other than the obvious one - that we are all haunted, and all to some extent culpable in the sufferings of others. Whatever the artistic intent it is a powerful piece.

More from this running review in due course. It's proving a wild ride so far.

Wednesday 10 January 2018

Tuesday 9 January 2018

'The Fiddlers'

Pam Farley's contribution to WHA 2 begins with a woman waking up in a windowless room. There is nothing inherently sinister about this - in fact, it's a happy accident. Elle finds herself alone, which is unusual. Where are her pets? Where, indeed, is her husband? As she explores the farm where she lives Elle realises that something is seriously wrong. She hears a snatch of music, a distant fiddler. Then she finds a horse, Lara, who has survived the mysterious event. Soon it becomes clear that Elle and Lara must escape. But can they?

'The Fiddler's is an odd little story that I quite enjoyed. There is no attempt explain, only to describe a person's response to an extreme - and baffling - threat. The ending is arguably an endorsement of individual freedom, regardless of the cost. Ambiguous stuff, but memorable.

More from this running review very soon!

Sunday 7 January 2018

'The Keepers of the Lighthouse'

The Keepers of the Lighthouse: A Ghost Story (Ghosts Book 1) by [Mackenzie, Ken]

“There was only one man—we’re a bit stretched, as you know,” said Cartwright. “The lighthouse keeper looked in on him every few days. Then, one day, the young man disappeared. When the keeper next returned, he looked high and low for him. He reported that the place was like the Marie Celeste—cup of tea half-empty on the galley table, some toast half-eaten. It looked as if the man had simply vanished.”
Here is a tiny book (c. 5,000 words) from Midnight Press containing a ghost story. Ken Mackenzie has taken the classic setting of the spooky old lighthouse (off the Scottish coast, in this case), and set his tale during World War 2. This is interesting, as it had never occurred to me that during wartime lighthouses went dark - indeed, one priority was to stop German agents (or commandos) lighting them up. They would have been invaluable to bombers and of course any potential invaders.

Thus the keepers of this particular lighthouse have simply to sit tight, keep a lookout, and report anything unusual. It soon becomes clear that a lot of unusual things are happening - but not as a result of enemy action. A new recruit with a shady background arrives, and his behaviour soon causes concern to the incumbent, Reynolds. As the story unfolds the newcomer becomes more erratic, until eventually the authorities intervene. Then all is revealed, in a nice twist that nods to several classic ghostly tales.

If you like old-school supernatural fiction redolent of stormy seas and lonely isles, this is for you. 'The Keepers of the Lighthouse' is available for Kindle here.

Thursday 4 January 2018

'All Our Rooms Are Ensuite'

Tracey Fahey is a rising star of modern Gothic fiction, and her contribution to the Women in Horror Annual 2 is a satisfying, well-crafted story.

A young woman travels from Dundalk to Dublin to take up a job in the sales department of new, trendy sort of company. Her firm books her into a B&B that is sub-optimal, with garish decor and a long list of rules. It turns out that all new recruits are sent to that particular guest house. In her room the woman finds a diary. It's author was recruited by the same firm, which seems to process new staff members in a distinctly odd way. When the light fails while the woman is showering she senses a presence in the ensuite bathroom - something that her predecessor also sensed.

This is an old-school weird tale with a modern feel, combining the genuinely disturbing qualities of modern corporate culture with the time-honoured device of the found journal. It offers just enough ambiguity, just enough mundane but telling detail, to keep the reader interested. The sense of something not quite right builds gradually. Finally, there is horror - albeit one not quite seen, but very well imagined.

Good stuff. More from this running review later.

Tuesday 2 January 2018

'Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You' - 1963 Radio Drama

A rarity is currently available on the BBC iPlayer - a Home Service radio adaptation of M.R. James classic story, starring Michael Hordern. Yes, before he played Professor Parkins in Jonathan Miller's TV adaptation, Hordern took the same role on the wireless. It's an enjoyable, fairly brisk radio play.

'The Coffin Builder'

Caroline Katz's story from Women in Horror Annual 2 is an interest twist on the idea of the small community driven to excess by a strange force. In this case the eponymous craftsman constructs a coffin so perfect that everyone wants to have it. This means that they either kill themselves or other people in an attempt to claim the casket. 
Not surprisingly the authorities grow concerned. But the coffin builder - we never learn his name - refuses to either destroy the casket or use it for any of the rapidly accumulating heap of bodies. Eventually, though, it is an apparent accident that ends the crisis, and finally puts the coffin builder where he belongs. 

The story is neat, if slight, set in an unnamed US region - there's a state Governor, the names are American-sounding. The tone is whimsical, in a dark way, and the central idea recalls earlier fables of enchanted objects such as Borges' 'The Zahir'. It could also be seen as a satire on contemporary culture, where the desire for fame/notoriety transcends all common sense.

So, after the seasonal break, the running review is up again. More from WHA 2 very soon!

Women in Horror Annual 2 (WHA) by [Katz, C. Rachel]

Helpmeet - a brief review