Thursday 29 November 2018

Joss Ackland Reads Some Ghost Stories

Image result for joss acklandThe British actor Joss Ackland has been a favourite of mine for many years. He has a rich, sonorous voice well-suited to short story readings, and handles eerie material well. At the moment, over at the BBC iPlayer, you can hear a series of 'Ghost Stories' Ackland recorded in 1986. The selection is interesting, because it is strongly biased toward modern (by Eighties standards) writers, using a broad definition of the genre.

The oldest story is 'Midnight Express' by Alfred Noyes, which first appeared in 1935. (Noyes is an interesting character in his own right, not least for his role in the scandal over Roger Casement's diaries.) The other stories I've heard thus far are Ray Bradbury's 'The Crowd', 'Laura' by Robert Aickman, and 'A Little Place Off the Edgeware Road' by Graham Greene. Coming up this weekend is 'The Tower' by Marghanita Laski.

All are post-war stories, and all stretch the definition of ghost story. Greene's is arguably the most conventional, while in Laski's story there is no actual ghost as such. 'Midnight Express' is different again, with its eerie illustrated book that haunts the protagonist's dreams. All in all, it's a fine selection, with stories good enough to deserve wider exposure, but not over-familiar. They are of course abridged to fit a narrow, 15 minute slot, but again I think this was handled sensitively. 'Laura', for instance, does not suffer from a little trimming.

So, if you want a bedtime listen, give them a try.

Tuesday 27 November 2018

Don't forget to vote!

Supernatural Tales 39

Please, if you can, vote for your favourite story/stories in ST #39. It may not seem like much, but it gives a tremendous boost to the authors to know that people care about their work. 

Also, the winner of the online poll gets the almost unimaginable sum of £25. It's not much, but it's obviously better than a poke in the eye or similar. 

So please, go here and vote. 

And if you have yet to actually buy the magazine, you can go here to find links to sites that will sell it to you!

Image result for mrs pankhurst
Emmeline Pankhurst - keen on voting

Monday 26 November 2018

'The Golden Hour'

The final story in Uncertainties III is by Rosanne Rabinowitz. The golden hour is that time around dawn when the quality of light erases imperfections and 'infuses shabbiness with beauty'.

Set in London, the story concerns friendship, time, and the possibility of eternity that the golden hour hints at. The narrator sees a tower block radiating golden light. This triggers her search for Sheila, a photographer with whom she once collaborated on a book of photographs. Sheila became obsessed with light, with mirrors, with the idea of escaping into the golden hour forever.

The story is strange, and rather wonderful, but it is rooted in the sheer oddness of friendship - how people come together, how they drift apart. Friendship is more mysterious than love, in some respects, and the author explores this mystery while conjuring up a London as numinous as anything in Machen. The end of the story is a reunion and a revelation. There is no horror here, but an undeniable sense of wonder.

And thus we come to an end of an excellent anthology. Other reviewers have already said it, but it bears repeating - there are no duds in this one, only good to excellent stories. All credit to the authors, of course, but also to Lynda E. Rucker for curating an anthology that not only has something for everyone, but seems to partake of every strand one finds in the weird genre.

Saturday 24 November 2018

Nicolas Roeg 1928-2018

'Ashes to Ashes'

Scott West's story in Uncertainties III proves to be eerily timely. It is set in a town that has been largely abandoned due to wildfires. The protagonist, Ben, has stayed behind, despite intense heat and smoke-filled air. Ash rains down as he goes about what at first seems to be a bit of looting and general survivalism. But then it emerges that Ben has some urgent work to do.

Spoilers ahead, be warned.

A town about to be engulfed by flames seems an ideal place to hide the body of a murder victim. But Ben is determined to give the woman he killed a proper burial, so he trundles her corpse through the ash-rain to the cemetery, where he has prepared a casket. Much of the story consists of the detailed description of how the murderer goes about his task. It is, in a way, a reversal of the old trope of the killer being unable to dispose of the body. Here disposal is trivially easy - where better to hide a corpse than in a burning town?

Ben is, arguably, another prime example of toxic masculinity, performing in a 'decent' way after killing a woman. As he completes the burial the flames close in, bringing a retribution he expects, deserves, and welcomes.

Tuesday 20 November 2018


Here we have another story from the excellent anthology Uncertainties III, edited by Lynda E. Rucker. The authors, Julia Rust and David Surface, take as their starting point a classic fictional setup. Eleanor is a (possibly) unattractive young woman whose roommate Rebecca is sexy and glamorous. The names, I suspect, were not chosen at random. Eleanor Lance from The Haunting of Hill House and the first chatelaine of Manderley are present in spirit, I think.

One day Eleanor sneakily takes a look at the dating site Rebecca has been using, via Rebecca's laptop. Able to pose as someone else, Rebecca gets a tremendous thrill and starts to converse with various suitors. When Rebecca returns, Eleanor waits for discovery and the inevitable meltdown. But it seems she has gotten away with splashing around in Rebecca's dating pool.

Eleanor takes to using the laptop to engage in what are romantic but also disturbing, slightly off-kilter online discussions. One guy, using the name TallDarkAnd, tells her she is lovely, desirable. Eleanor, who had a hare lip corrected relatively late in childhood, is convinced her scar makes her repulsive. Or is she? When Rebecca suggests Eleanor create her own online dating profile, she agrees. Soon Eleanor is addicted to weird digital flirting, but then comes a revelation that changes everything.

Another excellent story, shifting from a claustrophobic tale of unequal friendship to something very different.

Monday 19 November 2018

Poll Time!

Best Story in Issue 39?
'A Tiny Mirror' - Eloise C.C. Shepherd
'A Family Affair' - Margaret Karmazin
'Burnt Heart, Bound Feet' - Danielle Davis
'Like the Absence...' - Chloe N. Clark
'The Moor' - Rosalie Parker
'By the Hungry Sea' - Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin
'The Figure in the Scene' - Jon Barron
Created with QuizMaker

Saturday 17 November 2018

Issue 39 now available

Supernatural Tales 39

Go here for the print-on-demand issue.

New stories by Eloise C.C. Shepherd, Carrie Vaccaro Nelkin, Margaret Karmazin, Jon Barron, Chloe N.Clark, Rosalie Parker, and Danielle Davis. Cover photo by Sam Dawson.

Wednesday 14 November 2018

'The Woman in the Moon'

Tracy Fahey's story in Uncertainties III is a poetic, powerful account of what may be a mental breakdown. Certainly the final lines imply that the female narrator has suffered so much, lost so much, that she has been driven to extreme measures. But along the way the story is beautifully told, blending various ideas about the power of moonlight with a poignant account of very human loss.

I continue to be impressed by the sheer diversity of the stories Lynda E. Rucker has selected. Here is a tale that might be classed as fantasy, horror, or even 'straight' crime. But what makes it work is that it's a good story regardless of genre, packing a lot of effective imagery into a handful of pages. Every paragraph seems shot through with the colourless light of the moon, haunting and strange.

More from this anthology soon, I hope.

Tuesday 6 November 2018

'It Could Be Cancer'

"Sorry about your balls."

Not a line you will find in the works of Montague Rhodes James, but pithy and effective.

Ralph Robert Moore's contribution to Uncertainties III is a remarkable story of what's sometimes termed the crisis of masculinity. It begins with Philip, a regular guy, taking a piss and discovering a lump on the side of one ball. This leads indirectly to him punching a housemate in the face, having to move out and live alone, and then encountering his dead daughter.

The nameless little girl, who offers some adult insights with a suitably grow-up vocabulary, cheers up Philip with a silly dance - her version of the Twist. Philip does not question her presence, perhaps because he is already punch-drunk from his cancer scare. Instead he talks to her, and listens to her.

This is obviously not a conventional ghost story. I have no real idea about the nature of the little girl who enlivens Philip's bleak and troubled existence, except that only he can see her. It does not really matter if she is 'there' in some sense beyond the obvious. But her help seems to make a difference, as Philip starts dating a co-worker, applies for promotion, and seems to on track to a better life.

As you might expect, this is not a cheerful story with a Disney 'ghost girl helps unhappy man' vibe. Far from it. The ending is a punch in the gut. I 'm not sure I understand this story, but artistically it works well. Perhaps that's what matters.

More on this impressive anthology soon.

Saturday 3 November 2018

Older than Dracula?

Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood.jpg

Over at The Conversation is an interesting item on English vampires. Or, more precisely, genuine folk belief (with some official endorsement) in the undead. As we know, however, when people claim that 'vampires' exist anywhere, definitions become a bit baggy.

The author, literature lecturer Sam George, draws the usual link between Byron and Polidori's story 'The Vampyre'. What she does not say, unfortunately, is that this led to a string of imitative penny dreadful vampire storie, often published anonymously (as Polidori's story was, originally). Among these tales was ''Varney the Vampire: or, The Feast of Blood', serialised 1845-7. 

In 1894 Augustus Hare published an account of a supposedly real vampire occurrence. The Vampire of Croglin Grange is cited in the Conversation piece, though the dates seem to differ with other accounts. And, as people have pointed out, it does read like a pastiche of earlier vampire fictions, particularly a scene in which the vampire picks the glass from a window pane to access his victim's home. Varney did exactly the same thing.
Both Varney and the Croglin Vampire stories mention a vampire forcing their way into a heroine’s bedroom by removing a small pane of glass. The vampires each release the catches on the door and wrap the girls hair around their bony fingers. Then the vampires tilt the girls neck, plunge their teeth into her; a gush of blood and a sucking noise follows.
I think George is on firmer ground with the Buckinghamshire 'vampire' that was suppressed by a saint, no less. St Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, was told the corpse in question should be dug up and burned. Instead he laid an absolution on the un-decayed corpse, which was put to rest. These medieval legends concerning saints are not remotely reliable, of course, but it's interesting to see that there was a tradition of the dead walking and praying on the living in the 12th century.

I also like the story of the Cumbrian village of Renwick, supposedly terrified by a bat-like monster that emerged from the foundations of a church at some point in the remote past. People of Renwick became known as 'Bats'. There was even a punk band called the Renwick Bats. Even more suggestive is the sheer number of broken and burnt human remains found in the deserted Yorkshire village of Wharram Percy. Some think they are evidence of cannabilism, others suggest that around 100 bodies were mutilated to stop the dead from rising.

I suppose what all this proves is that the Dracula story crystallised fictional character and folk beliefs into a very commercial form of vampire, complete with suitably exotic folklore. This eclipsed the kind of the folklore that helped inspire M.R. James, whose ghosts often seem to be radically modified versions of the deceased. The 'ghosts' in 'The Mezzotint', 'Wailing Well', 'Martin's Close' and other stories are not ethereal enough to be conventional Victorian spooks. Like Dracula, they give a bit more substance to supernatural menace.

Friday 2 November 2018

'Voices in the Night'

Veteran sf and horror writer Lisa Tuttle's contribution to Uncertainties III is an interesting blend of old and new. The migrant experience, the sense of being alone in an uncaring society, is combined with an ancient myth known to most of us.

Katya is an immigrant who comes to an unnamed city seeking work. She finds it hard to get a place to stay, and settles for a room in a shabby hotel in a run-down area. Her sleep is interrupted by loud voices nearby, not in her building, but apparently emanating from a disused factory. At first she thinks it is a party, but there is no music. She investigates, and finds that the factory yard seems to be a gathering point for a disparate group of rather odd people.

As the story unfolds it becomes clear (to some extent) what is happening. What makes it enjoyable is the way that Katya, like many a protagonist before her, is gradually drawn into an ever-stranger situation. Soon she finds herself at the river, where boats call for the wandering strangers. The ghosts (if they are ghosts) are poignant and tragic because they do not speak to one another, merely emit futile, incomprehensible monologues. Katya's efforts to help one of these lost souls proves her undoing. The ending finally reveals just where the boats must be headed.

A dark tale, for a dark time of year. More from this running review soon.

Dead of Night (1945)

The last of my Hallowe'en fuelled nostalgia binge is the first horror movie made in Britain after World War 2. What's more, it was made by Ealing Studios, now renowned for its classic comedies of the Fifties. Dead of Night, however, has only one overtly comedic episode, and the overall tone of the film shifts from light to darkness.

One of the most influential anthology/portmanteau horror films, Dead of Night consists of four weird tales linked by a framing story. Architect Walter Craig, played by Mervyn Johns, travels down to a country house he has never seen - except in a recurring nightmare. The guests at the house are also people from the dream, which he tells them ends in violence and terror.

One of the guests is a psychiatrist, Dr. Van Straaten (Frederick Valk) who naturally rationalises away Craig's fears. But the other members of the house party object, each one telling a tale of the supernatural. Each segment has a different director and is adapted from works by well-known writers, among them E.F. Benson and H.G. Wells. It is a bit old-fashioned and ropey at times, not least when Sally Ann Howes deploys an RP accent that might cut glass, but it moves along quite briskly. None of the segments outstay their welcome and there is a refreshing contrast of themes and styles.

Thursday 1 November 2018

'Before I Walked Away'

The shortest story in Uncertainties III edited by Lynda E. Rucker (Swan River Press) is by R.S. Knightley.

'Before I Walked Away' is a poetic, powerful vignette, written in the first person. It's star is Kat, a student in a black negligee and fishnets, and brandishing a whip. The narrator, Helen, is arguably in love with Kat, but something is wrong with this relationship. They are close, but between them falls a shadow. A silly argument has apparently led to tragic consequences. But for whom?

This story packs a lot into a few pages. As a ghost story, I think it works. As a story that might not involve a ghost, it's just as effective. As a portrait of youth, love, and loss, it is painfully good.

The Haunting (1963)

I was disappointed by the recent Netflix adaptation of Shirley Jackson's novel, for many reasons.* But fortunately we have Robert Wise's excellent black and white film to show what a real adaptation looks like.

It's a remarkable variation on the traditional Gothic themes. All of the characters are not-quite-stereotypes of figures familiar from the works of Le Fanu, Wilkie Collins and others. Eleanor Lance is the timid, virginal young woman lured to the sinister house - but she wants to go. Doctor Markway is the suave, intellectual older man who manipulates events - but he is a decent man who wants to protect Eleanor. Theo is the clever, attractive woman who often serves as sidekick/mistress to the villain - but she too has essentially good motives. Luke is the handsome young heir who might rescue the heroine - but has no interest in doing so and is quite ineffectual.

The absence of visible ghosts - they are always audible or tactile - also has a Victorian feel. In some novels the ghosts would be contrived to terrify the heroine. Eleanor, while undeniably terrified, is drawn to the house because it represents a simple solution to her problems, an escape from a world she fears as much as any ghost.

But watch the film yourself. It's open to many interpretations because it's a genuine work of art. And anyone looking for the flaw in the creation that must always be present, have a listen to Valentine Dyall's American accent. In the night. In the dark.

*There is an excellent (inevitably spoiler heavy) critique of the Netflix series here.

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...