Monday 26 August 2019

The Pyramid (2014)

So a friend regularly buys me a Netflix subscription for my birthdays and Christmas, and I spend a lot of time searching for decent horror films (among other things). My God, there's a lot of mediocre stuff out there. And yes, I know there always was, but today the not-very-good horror movie seems to be undergoing a revival. I suspect this is precisely because online streaming sites demand industrial-scale production of so-so movies with nothing new to say and no great chops in the scripting/acting/directorial areas.

The Pyramid is a good example of the 'meh' school of modern horror. It's not a cheapo thing cobbled together by some students. It's a 20th century Fox production, some money has clearly been thrown at it, and the cast do a decent job. What's more the subject matter - archaeologists locate mysterious pyramid, get trapped inside, stuff happens - is very appealing. I love me a bit of killer mummy, ancient curses, mad reincarnation stuff, Valerie Leon swanning around half-naked...

Where was I? Ah yes, the plot is simple enough. A documentary team are filming a dig in Egypt. A father and daughter team have discovered, courtesy of satellite tech, a huge buried edifice. It's a three-sided pyramid, vastly bigger and older than all those other pyramids in Egypt. But the Arab Spring is really kicking off so the police order the team to pack up and go. Needless to say, they make a last, hasty attempt to go inside and explore a bit...

The first thing wrong with the movie is that it's a bungle found-footage effort. Everybody goes inside wearing head-cam gizmos, but this conceit is overly-familiar and quite boring. Secondly, the shocks and mysteries they discover are also too familiar. They ramp up the curse concept by having this pyramid as the domain of the ultimate menace in Egyptian mythology, but the execution recalls a video game - there is much hiding round corners and peeping at monsters. Some scenes do offer decent jump scares and the overall look of the thing isn't bad. But that's about it.

The Pyramid might have been a much better movie if it had had a little camp humour and general silliness, but I suspect that's not what was required. Instead we have a familiar series of violent deaths and a twist ending that fall flat. And I'm not sure how it relates to the Arab Spring, which is foregrounded in the opening scenes. Somehow it felt cheap and a tad racist to make something so very real and bloody the backdrop to a bit of old tat that doesn't really work as horror, or indeed anything else.

Saturday 24 August 2019

Short Story - It's Free!

This one doesn't really fit anywhere else so I thought I'd post it here.

Dive Buddy

It's murky down here. The water's thick with ooze and muck and particles of nondescript crud that block my view in all directions. Look up, and I can just see the shimmer of the surface, a sheet of uncertain greenish light. Ahead of me and all around is a liquid fog born of the currents and the tides. Down, then, keeping hold of the guide line, until I see the wreck.

There it is, seeming to rise out of the murk like a ghost ship. Which I suppose it is. It's nothing special, a coastal cargo vessel that went down in a minor storm thanks to shoddy seamanship some fifty-odd years back. Just another number in Lloyd's long list, another ding on the old Lutine Bell. But it so happens this ship settled down gently, sinking so slowly that it came to rest upright and almost intact on the flat, sandy bed. And that makes it a good dive site.

So I'm told. I'm new to all this, I've only been down a few times and I'm still excited, nervous, thrilled by the adventure of it all. It's another world. It's planet Earth, Jim, but not as we know it. Most of our world is covered in water and here I am exploring that liquid layer, boldly going...

Hold on. Where's Clare? I look up again, and again all I can see is the line reaching up towards the surface shimmer where the dive boat must be. She was following me down, keeping an eye on me, the experienced diver following the rookie, looking out for him. Mother hen. Always fussing over me, as if I'm some kind of old fart. Makes me proud, in a way. And she's right, of course, you've got to the be careful in these out-of-the-way places. It's not like the local authorities give a damn about safety.

But where is she? Did she pass me on the way down as I methodically descended, working my way hand over hand like a rock-climber in reverse, careful not to zoom off into the great unknown with a flick of the flippers? She might have done. She might be checking out the ship below, making sure there are no hazards for a rookie...

I peer down at the wreck, which is sharper-edged now, but still a featureless greenish-black shape. Nothing moves at first, but then a shadow moves against deeper shadow, and I squint through my mask. Is it Clare? I kick towards the shape, being careful to move fluidly, as gracefully as I can, determined not to flap around like a buffoon. The middle-aged guy with his hot young wife, playing the man of action. A walking, talking, free-spending cliché...

Wednesday 21 August 2019

'Martin's Close' - A Ghost Story for Christmas

'1684. John Martin is on trial for his life. Facing him, the infamous ‘hanging Judge’, George Jeffreys. But this is not a cut and dried murder case. Because the innocent girl Martin is accused of killing has been seen after her death…'

Peter Capaldi in Martin's Close (BBC)

Yes, it's arguably Monty James's best 'historical' ghost story. Script by who else but Mark Gatiss, who also directs. What's more, it stars Peter Capaldi, formerly the Doctor (i.e. Who) and a good choice for this sort of thing. With wigs and that.
Capaldi will play Dolben, the barrister prosecuting Mr Martin for the crown, while other cast members include Game of Thrones’ Wilf Scolding as George Martin, Upstairs Downstairs’ Simon Williams as Stanton, EastEnders’ Sara Crowe as Sarah, Cucumber’s Fisayo Akinade as William, James Holmes (Miranda) as Snell and Elliot Levey as Judge George Jeffreys.
More info here.

Monday 19 August 2019

A Flowering Wound - Review

This new-ish Swan River Press collection of John Howard's tales seemed to me like suitable summer reading. Many of the stories concern overlit urban landscapes not unlike those in the stories of J.G. Ballard, though the mood is very different.

Howard is more humane than Ballard, more interested in the minutiae of history. What the two authors do have in common, however, is a refusal to resort of conventional gimmicks to neatly 'round off' stories, preferring to present instead a vision, an incident, a sense of dislocation or doubt.

The stories fall into several broad categories. There are contemporary tales of somewhat alienated and lonely gay men who struggle to make connections. 'A Glimpse of the City' sees an Englishman in contemporary Berlin becoming fixated on a young man who appears in photographs from different periods of the city's history. 'The Man Ahead' is a similarly enigmatic figure glimpsed at a Pride march in Birmingham. 'We the Rescued' explores similar themes in modern Berlin.

More interesting (to me at any rate) are stories that explore the obscurer corners and byways of European history. 'Portrait in an Unfaded Photograph' follows the interesting adventures of Gustav Meyer (later Meyrink) a subject of the Habsburgs who becomes involved in the life of the writer Carmen Sylva, also known as Queen Elizabeth of Romania. An exchange of postcards eventually leads our hero(?) to take drastic steps. But is his conduct mad, noble, or irrelevant? History may not always tell,

'Ziegler Against the World' is set in Weimar Germany, and focuses on stamps. As currency inflation roars out of control, postmaster Ziegler becomes a paper billionaire. But as the fledgling democracy totters towards oblivion his main preoccupation is a book he discovered amid the ruins of the Western Front during his military service - a book by Joris-Karl Huysmans. What is true decadence? And does Ziegler confront it or succumb to it?

'A Flowering Wound' is set in Bucharest during the rise of fascism, and begins with an earthquake. A slight but effective tale, it picks at the tectonic plates of extremist politics. More powerful still is 'Twilight of the Airships', which is a must-read for lovers of dirigibles (we're more common than you might think). In a Balkan city the locals look forward to the flypast by two mighty airships, one German, one Soviet. But the event is not what they expect, as future tragedy is foreshadowed by a tumult in the clouds.

There are also some stories that recall Arthur Machen's approach to London, his insistence that the great metropolis is a place of magic and mystery. Best of these is 'The Golden Mile', in which an innocuous commuter discovers wonders invisible to others in a suburb. There is also 'Under the Sun', in which a strange street is found by a man who may be seeking his true identity.

Considered as a whole this is an interesting and thoughtful collection, one to sample carefully rather than devour in a series of quick gulps. The beautiful cover by Jason Zerrillo and Meggan Kehrli, a modernist cityscape suffused with golden light, captures the luminosity of the contents.

Sunday 18 August 2019

The Science of Unvanishing Objects - Review


Chloe N. Clark's stories have appeared in Supernatural Tales for some years now. This slim pamphlet shows another side to her talents, but most of the poems here could be classed as supernatural tales or weird fiction. The feel is darkly humorous, sometimes confessional, always alert and interested in a world infested with strange ideas and even strangers people.

Ghosts are common but not commonplace. 'The Apparitionist' runs through fragments of autobiography, from the ex-boyfriend into Japanese ghosts to childhood rituals invented to keep spirits away. 'Tricks to Keep Away the Dark' and 'A Spell That Uses the Blood of Oranges' have similar themes, recalling the intense beliefs of the young and the way they haunt our older selves. 'Rural Routes in Iowa' sees the poet consult a palm reader, only to be told she has no lines, no fortune. Like many inclusion, this one reads a little like notes for a short stories.

Missing women and girls haunt these pages, not quite ghosts but just as potentially disturbing. 'The Detective, Years After' lies awake at night, listening to trees 'tap codes' on his window, and the women he could not find come to him. 'Missing Girl Found' is bleakly exuberant in its exploration of possibilities - the missing girl is found in many places or not at all. In other poems, the dead are found, skulls half-buried, bones pushing up through the earth.

The microcosm and macrocosm rub shoulders here, with speculation on what black holes can taste as they devour planets, while in another poem Clark asks 'Google Search History, Tell Me Who I Am'. The answer is thoughtful, funny. But there is usually a certain uneasiness, as in the meditation on the jewel-like shells containing cicadas that appear periodically every seventeen years.

I enjoyed this small collection, and would recommend it even to those who would not normally try modern poetry. It is interesting, entertaining, often surprising, never dull.

Tuesday 6 August 2019

Life Goes On...

I'm slowly adjusting to the new normal, and contemplating the next issue of ST. I hope to publish it before Hallowe'en and the impending Brexit lunacy. In the meantime here's a nice horror story.

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...