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Showing posts from March, 2018

'Notes on the Border'

The final story in the collection The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things is, rather cunningly, not so much a story as a collection of notes that might make any number of cracking tales. It consists of a series of entries in a journal starting on 13th September 2001 and ending in the following September. Not surprisingly the author finds himself in small towns, visiting bookshops, the odd record shop, and of course historic buildings. Along the way we learn about Mark Valentine's literary tastes. I've heard of most of the authors he mentions, read somewhat fewer of them. He is of course a Machen fan, but also an admirer of the late W.G. Sebald, somewhat less keen on Simon Raven. A 'PJB' is, I presume, the author Peter Bell, who joins Mark for some bibliophile adventures. Along the way we find the killing of the last wolf in England (allegedly), some nice pubs, and find out what a cittern is. This story-cum-essay is a tad Borgesian in its eclecticism and a very pleasant

'As Blank As the Days Yet to Be'

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The penultimate story Mark Valentines The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things is a tale of the cockatrice. No, missus, really. From it I learned that a cockatrice is a hybrid cock-snake (I'm not making this up) and has gorgonesque powers to turn other living things to stone. I wasn't aware of cockatrice legends from around England, one of which involved someone lowering a mirror into its lair so it zapped itself. We are an ingenious people... In the story the narrator sets out in search of more folklore and finds it in a small village, along with something else - the remains of an ancient turf maze. These are fascinating, not least because nobody could get lost in them. Well, not in a conventional sense I gleaned the possibility that the young man the author meets, Anthony, is not just a helpful local but something more, and that the two walking the maze has great significance. Unfortunately I found the story baffling so I can't be sure how successful it might seem to so

'Martin's Close'

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Here's Alan Brown's evocative illustration for M.R. James classic tale of ghostly vengeance, which prompted me to think about the story again - as good artwork does. It's a disturbing read, but I suspect some modern folk might struggle a bit with the period dialogue in the court transcript. For me it's one of the best examples of a historical ghost story - one set in a bygone era that is expertly brought to life by the author. In Judge Jeffries James offers a very believable portrait of a real villain, acting as a kind of counterweight to George Martin, who's pretty much a broken man by the time his trial begins. You can hear a discussion of this slightly neglected story at the excellent A Podcast to the Curious, and there a lot of useful links on the site, too. http://www.mrjamespodcast.com/2012/06/episode-14-martins-close/

Look Ma, Top o' the World!

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Okay so it wasn't No. 1 for long, but still. If Mr Spielberg is interested I'm in most evenings.

'The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things'

The title story in Mark Valentine's new collection from Zagava is a gentle tale of strange events on the borders of what we term normal life. A man goes to a small rural community to curate a museum dedicated to a not-very-famous explorer. In his new home he becomes fascinated by the artefacts he now has in his care, particularly ones which bear odd carvings in what might be an unknown language. Then the narrator encounters a pleasant, eccentric woman engaged in taking rubbings in the church. It turns out that she is also trying to create a new Tarot specific to the odd Cornish village of Sancreed. The setting of Sancreed is beautifully evoked, and the story relies on the Machenesque notion that some places are closer (in some dimension) to a higher truth than most. The revelation that the characters experience at the old 'rocket shed' on the westernmost tip of the peninsula is awesome in the old-fashioned sense, an epiphany that it may take them a lifetime to truly kn

Quatermass and the Tits

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I've just watched Lifeforce (1985) all the way through for the first time in many years. I have a few thoughts. Oh dearie me, yes. For a start, this is a film with many real virtues. Unfortunately none of them have much to do with the script or the lead performances. Nope,  it's all down to the effects, the general production values, Tobe Hooper's solid direction, and a very good (if somewhat under-used) supporting cast. Much of the blame for this hefty box-office flop lies with Colin Wilson's original story, which - as my clickbaity title for this post hints - is wildly derivative stuff with a sweaty whiff of soft porn. Wilson's novel The Space Vampires I have not read. But if the script is any guide, it must be a doozy. But let's consider those virtues I mentioned first. For a start, John Dyskra's space effects are rather good, especially in the opening sequence when the spacecraft Churchill approaches Halley's Comet and identifies a 150 mi

Yes, But I Live in England...

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New books by me

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"Two new books, Dave? What a splendid chap you are, well done!" "Gosh, yes, you're so prolific." "Please have all our money." Factually speaking, these books are about: changelings, 'the Good Folk', a haunted mansion, unwise ghost-hunting TV production methods, monsters, a town near the Welsh border called Machen, and other things.

'The Scarlet Door' and 'Vain Shadows Flee'

The next two stories in The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things were both published by me in ST, and are therefore brilliant. Well, okay, they're very good. 'The Scarlet Door' sees Mark Valentine in familiar territory - the world of niche collectors. In this case the narrator haunts small, cluttered bookshops in search of rare volumes. Not valuable books per se, you understand, but ones so obscure that they have never been catalogued or shelved in a library. In the eponymous scarlet volume he finds more than he bargained for. Or does he? All we can be sure of is that books are portals to strange worlds, and almost unknown books can offer routes to the strangest realms of all. 'Vain Shadows Flee' is a tribute to the late Joel Lane. Not a horror tale as such, it is a meditation on loss. In this case the loss is of Bide-y, a tramp who lived by a canal and sang 'Abide With Me', then vanished. From this apparently thin seam the author weaves a compelling picture

'Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore'

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Best title I've read in a good while, and a good story too. Mark Valentine's collection The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things has a few recurring themes. One is the torment that sensitive, thoughtful individuals must suffer in a world that is crass and indifferent. Another is loneliness, the yearning for a connection, a sense of order and belonging. 'Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore' tackles these themes by the roundabout route of imagined  low-budget sci-fi. In the obscure film Venus Invades Us the eponymous commander was played by an actor rejoicing in the screen name of Triton. Triton put in one of those compelling performances that can raise a film to cult status. Fans materialise, while work remains sparse. And then, as sometimes happens, Triton began to identify with his one significant role so much that he believed himself to be in touch with aliens. The only problem is that the Venusians are in fact peaceful. It's those warlike Martians you&#

Ghost - Review

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Antispoiler alert - Ghost by Helen Grant is not a supernatural tale. It is, however, a modern Gothic novel that anyone who likes Helen's other work will enjoy. So, having said that, what's it about? The setting is a big, isolated house in the Scottish countryside. There live Ghost, real name Augusta, and her grandmother. Ghost knows that, beyond the dense forest that fringes the estate, World War 2 is raging. Bombs fall onto terrified civilians, war machines clash by land, sea, and air, and while the men are away fighting women are drafted into factories to make munitions. Grandmother is protecting Ghost from a world in chaos. Grandmother sometimes goes into town for supplies, but ghost - who is seventeen - never ventures as far as the road. It is not safe. But the great house is crumbling, and a winter storm brings down a section of roof. Grandmother calls in a builder to repair the damage, and the builder brings his teenage son, Tom. Ghost, as usual, has to hide in the

The Haunting Hour (2011-14)

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I never read R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series of spooky tales aimed at youngsters. Sadly, I was far too old for them - or so I thought. But having seen Stine on screen, I think I might have been a bit sniffy just because they were aimed at kids. Oh God no! Not the clowns! The Haunting Hour, a TV series bearing Stine's name, is available free to watch on YouTube (as well as on Amazon Prime, without ads). It's an anthology series, with 20 minute episodes offering either stand-alone or two-part stories. These were run in three - hence the title. There were four seasons in all, and while some episodes are a little flat and obvious, some are pretty good. I've seen far worse attempts at anthology series for adults in recent years. THH is almost a Twilight Zone for kiddies, as some episodes offer science fiction rather than supernatural horror. Most, though, go for the familiar Hallowe'en tropes of the haunted house, the ghost, the vampire etc. And there's nothin

'The Mask of the Dead Mamilius' & 'In Cypress Shades'

Two linked stories, now, from Mark Valentine's  The Uncertainty of All Earthy Things . Both feature an eccentric, intense theatre director, Robert Hobbes. 'In Cypress Shades' is told from the perspective of a producer seeking to put on a production of Milton's 'Comus', a strange masque the poet wrote in his youth. Hobbes, a finely-drawn example of the director-as-tyrant, finds a make-up artist whose work is so  good that it eliminates the need for masks in the masque. Unfortunately, as the narrator discovers, the mysterious artist's work has an enduring quality. 'The Mask of the Dead Mamilius' concerns the tragic small son of Leontes in The Winter's Tale, who dies because his father - another tyrant - falsely believes he had been cuckolded. In this short tale a young actress takes the part of Mamilius, who is required by Hobbes to haunt Leontes through to the bitter-sweet end of the drama. Unfortunately the haunting proves more than merely th

'Zabulo'

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'Let me commend to you the work of the Churches Conservation Trust...' So begins Mark Valentine's tale of a gentleman who - like so many protagonists in M.R. James' stories - likes looking into churches on his travels. He finds one that seems to be in the wrong place, and in it he discovers some rather odd cards. I never gave much thought to those hymn numbers that are seen in churches, usually stuck in a frame on a pillar near the pulpit. But, as this story makes clear, they must be printed by someone and are bound to be stored in or near the church. But why, in this case, are there so many numbered cards? And why were so many of them printed by one 'Zabulo'. When the narrator repeats the unusual name, things happen... This is an atmospheric vignette, one that skirts the dark waters of medieval magic, numerology, and related matters. I enjoyed it when it first appeared in the Ghosts & Scholars newsletter, and I enjoyed it the second time. Mor

'Goat Songs'

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Mark Valentine is probably a record collector. I offer this opinion because he pretty much nails the atmosphere of second-hand record shops in 'Goat Songs'. His narrator stumbles across - or is lured by? - an obscure album by one of those Sixties groups who were into mysticism, folklore, and mind-bending antics. Like the previous story, 'Goat Songs' is about the enchantments that music can weave. The title refers to the album title, the group being Satyr. The climax of the story is, of course, the playing of the record. But before this we have learned that the 'hero' is a lost soul, living in a van with his record collection, often going without food so he can buy more. So when the final track on the album does not start the reader half-knows what is coming - the absolute release from the bleakly mundane that music so often promises, but so rarely delivers. I'm making good progress with this collection and will provide more review fragments soon.

International (Spooky) Women's Day 2

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I've just received the latest copy of the Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter . It seems only fair to point out that it's editor, Ro Pardoe, is one of the great women of weird fiction. She does not blow her own trumpet and deserves to be better known. She is a retiring Titan (or possibly a quiet Colossus) of genre fiction, one of those people who have been busy in fandom and small press publishing for decades and brought pleasure to thousands (at least) for no material reward. I think it was through a dealer's catalogue that I found out about Ro's magazine (then simply Ghosts & Scholars) and subscribed to it. I also bought some of her excellent Haunted Library chapbooks. I have since met Ro and her husband Darroll on a few (far too few) occasions, and found them as pleasant and erudite in real life as they are on the page. Ro doesn't 'do' the internet, wbich might explain why she is not as well-known as other editors. But her work on M.R. J

International (Spooky) Women's Day

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The ghost story was often seen as an essentially 'feminine' sub-genre in Victorian times. Genteel ladies seem to have woven ghost stories by the square mile for all those new, flourishing periodicals. But if the form was dismissed by 'serious' critics, that did not stop female writers producing some classics of the genre. Here are a few. 'The Shadows on the Wall' by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. A clever, psychological tale of a bereavement that casts a literal shadow over a far from happy family. It's a simple idea brilliantly executed by a very accomplished American author.  'The Library Window' by Margaret Oliphant. This prolific Scottish author produced more restrained and religious-toned stories. This tale of a convalescing girl confined to a bedroom is a bit more 'modern' and disturbing, though. She becomes fascinated by what is supposedly a false window in the old university library opposite. A strange man is sometimes visib

'Listening to Stonehenge'

The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things by Mark Valentine is, unsurprisingly, proving to be a first-rate collection. 'Listening to Stonehenge' is a tale of an expert on classical music contracted compile a CD of British music. The problem is that the theme is monuments, and there are few - if any - suitable pieces. So begins a quest for obscure works that leads to a forgotten female composer of the inter-war years, and a piece entitled 'Stonehenge'. This is a tale of the gig economy, interestingly enough, with our narrator making a precarious living writing sleeve notes etc for several employers. It also offers amusing insights into the world of cheap classic music publishing - the 'Glorious Britain' stuff, complete with 'Spitfire over the Cliffs of Dover' cover. It's a slight tale, but the finale, in which the expert flees a bizarre, disturbing rendition of the elusive work, has just the right touch of surreal nightmare. It's a bit Dead of Nigh

'The Key to Jerusalem'

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The second story in Mark Valentine's collection The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things keeps the reader in the Middle East. He begins by reminding us how inextricably entwined British imperial shenanigans were in the current state of the region. A group of British army cooks in Allenby's army, which is fighting the Turks, are sent out to forage for chickens. They instead encounter the Mayor of Jerusalem, who wishes to surrender. The keys of the city are offered, and duly passed on to senior officers - but one extra key, wrapped in a scrap of paper, is given to the cook covertly by the mayor. The cook passes it to an army chaplain. The paper seems to depict a strange coat of arms... The story is told in the form of three transcripts of interviews with the cook, the chaplain (in old age) and an expert on heraldry. The key is linked a missing order of Crusaders, it is claimed. But the man who went in search of the hidden truth is long since vanished. There is an elusive mag

The Uncertainty of All Earthy Things - Running Review

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A new small press publisher (to me) is Germany's Zagava , which produces limited hardback editions, but also offers unlimited paperbacks. A good policy! The first book they sent me for review is by ST regular, Machen scholar, bibliophile and all-round good egg Mark Valentine. I pinched this image from Zagava's Facebook page (see link above) which also links to its online store here . So here I go, reviewing a book by someone I know and like. That's pretty much how 90 per cent of 'proper' book reviewing works, of course. But various things happening lately in the rather incestuous world of small press publishing makes me digress here. I will not give something a free pass if I don't think it's good enough. If an author I know and count as a friend writes a stinker I may be unwilling to pan it, but I will not praise it to the skies. Right, let us move on. The first story in TUOAET is 'To the Eternal One'. It's a period piece, set 'between

Snowy Ghosty

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It's snowing a bit in Britain and everyone is - as our American cousins put it - 'losing their shit' over a bit of bad weather in winter. A good time, then, to ponder some supernatural tales in which snow is pretty much central. Stories in which there'd be a ghostly no show if there was no snow. 1. 'The Glamour of the Snow' Algernon Blackwood's 1912 tale of a somewhat reclusive, sensitive Englishman on holiday in Switzerland. He feels estranged from his countrymen and women, but finds a sympathetic skating partner on the rink at midnight. The mysterious female companion entrances him, until eventually he is lured out of the town and up into the Alps... 2. 'The Woman of the Saeter' Jerome K. Jerome's 1893 tale of cabin fever. For a legendary humorist JKJ had a fine way with weird, disturbing fiction. We're in the Alps again, this time for a folk tale. The narrative device is the familiar one of someone - a nice, sensible chap,