Friday 31 January 2020

'The Guardian of the Gateway'

Last Stop Wellsbourne: A CollectionContinuing my perusal of Last Stop Wellsbourne we come to another cracking title - one that recalls the great days of Weird Tales, when every other story concerned mysterious portals and fell deities. This one is set in a block of council flats and its environs, though, because Tom Johnstone is a great one for shaking up the old tropes and putting a modern, edgy spin on them. However, the guardian in question is a supernatural being, albeit one that seems inert at first.

'It crouches there, blood-red arms straight and taut, bright blue legs folded tight, as if ready to pounce like a panther. Its fists balance its body on the edge of the platform resting on white concrete pillars.'

It took me a while to figure out what it was. It is in fact a superhero toy* that's been buried at the now-infamous (if you're reading this running review) Wakeman Recreation Ground. The ancient, sacred site allegedly has the power to reanimate the dead. But what effect might it have on something that never lived? We find out, eventually.

This is another grim story of modern Britain, Wellsbourne standing in for pretty much any Leave-voting, left-behind town. It's a brutal tale of the quiet loner who is far more dangerous than any noisy troublemaker. It features a brutal murder (albeit witnessed at second hand via CCTV), and the strange vengeance of a fictional hero made real. Stories about inanimate objects coming alive are common, but this is a standout example.

Thursday 30 January 2020

'Jim Bloom's Van'

We continue with Tom Johnstone's collection Last Stop Wellsbourne, and a story about a team of council workers whose duties include emptying bins and disposing of Christmas trees. The seasonal time frame does not guarantee jollity, though. In fact, this one echoes previous tales, in that it deals with the outsider who is victimised simply for being different.

The van in questioned belonged to a member of the team who was murdered by three unknown assailants on a night out. Bloom was a bit New Agey, and when Sam, his colleague, attends the funeral he finds that it takes place out in the woods, near the mysterious Wakeman Recreation Ground. Wake-man, Re-creation - geddit? It's quickly apparent that Bloom is dead but not yet gone and his killers get their comeuppance. There are some good full-on horror moments, and a decent twist in the tale.

The author's point is not only that Britain is becoming a more vicious, cruel and narrow-minded place, but that people who think themselves decent aren't doing enough to stop the rot. I have to agree.

Let us see what the next tale brings.

Robert Aickman Documentary

Can't remember if I posted this when it came out in 2016, but if I did, here it is again.

Wednesday 29 January 2020

'Little Match-Stick Girl'

A Hallowe'en story, now, from Tom Johnstone's Last Stop Wellsbourne. It's the tale of Lily/Lilith, a nine-year-old girl who likes to spend time alone but does have some friends. Because they're deemed too old to go trick or treating, the group instead tell spooky stories. And then they dare Lily to go into a haunted house. She's tough and she does it, but has a mishap that leads to her getting stuck with one leg through a broken floorboard. In the light of her dropped phone she sees something... surprising.

'She very much doesn't want the thing  to touch her and so can't take her eyes off it.'

This is a playful story, whimsical in its way, but with a hint of figurative and literal fire. Lily is a well-drawn character and the intense - not to mention dangerous - emotions that she feels when her parents bicker and criticise her are totally believable. There is a strong hint that worse is to come for all concerned.

Tuesday 28 January 2020

'Mask of the Silvatici'

Last Stop Wellsbourne: A CollectionThe next story in Tom Johnstone's Last Stop Wellsbourne is a full-on political piece. It begins with Murdoch, a Tory MP and committed Brexiteer, listening to a talk in Wells Cathedral about its famous Green Man or foliate head. Being a bit of an arsehole (surprise, surprise) our right-wing politician makes snide remarks, belittling the lefty intellectual 'expert'. Murdoch hopes to impress Cressida, the latest in a long line of posh interns he takes away for dirty weekends. However, things to not go as planned.

Murdoch has of course rigged the game by booking a double room for himself and the lovely Cressida rather than two singles. But she responds by insisting on a camp bed for her boss. Murdoch feels things are not going well and recalls, uncomfortably but with no hint of conscience, the one 'conquest' who actually loved him, got pregnant, and took her own life when he rejected her. Like I said, he's repellent. During the night he experiences a visitation that he at first takes for Cressida but which is clearly (to the reader) a very different person.

The story pivots on the idea of the wild men of the woods, sometimes supernatural beings, sometimes outlaws. These silvatici seem to be rising again, significantly glimpsed on Solsbury Hill among other places. The fate of Murdoch, which I won't reveal (and which is a little ambiguous, but clearly No Fun) conveys the author's contempt for nationalist nostalgia and bigotry and the kind of people who tap into it. An angry story, then, and one that couldn't be more timely.

Sunday 26 January 2020

Not a Shirley Jackson biopic, but...

Elisabeth Moss and Odessa Young appear in <i>Shirley</i> by Josephine Decker, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Thatcher Keats.All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.There's a new film about Shirley Jackson, entitled Shirley. I'm very ignorant of modern cinema. There, I admitted it. Even in the realm of horror/supernatural movies, I don't know much. So I'll just put this here because it seems interesting:

'The story takes place sometimes after “The Lottery” has become the most controversial story ever published in The New Yorker (it first ran in 1948, giving Jackson a 59-year head start on “Cat Person”). A girl named Rose (Odessa Young) is reading the shockingly dark fable on a train as it cuts a path north through New England foliage; she holds the magazine close to her chest like a secret. It turns her on: Rose grabs her husband (Logan Lerman) by the hand and eagerly blooms for him in the nearest bathroom.'

Later, in that same review:

'Rose’s first encounter with Shirley is a scary one, as Moss — comfortably inhabiting all sorts of haggard makeup that she wears like a layer of cobwebs — embodies the author as an irritable grandma who’s been cooped up for long enough to haunt her own house. Shirley hasn’t been outside in over two months; Stanley insists that she isn’t well enough. He depends on her genius, but treats it like a disorder. Anything not to feel threatened. Wait until he reads “We Have Always Lived in the Castle.”'

This sounds very metafictional to me, and a good thing to. I'm not keen on biopics that simply tell the story of someone's life, because they never really do. Film is a lousy medium for that kind of thing, while books do it superbly. But a film that offers an insight into a real writer's creativity, that's another matter. So I look forward to seeing Shirley sometime, somewhere.

'From Rojava With Love'

The next story in my running review of Tom Johnstone's substantial collection, Last Stop Wellsbourne, returns to the themes of the first tale. Again we find migrants in the little England, again they are misrepresented and victimised. This time the story concerns the Syrian conflict, and the decision of a refugee to go back to his homeland to fight with the Kurdish militia, the Peshmerga. Along the way we learn more about the fascists in the first story, 'The Wakeman Recreation Ground'.

This ghost story, which is fairly traditional in form and pay off, is narrated by Saesha, a female police officer who follows the trail of the would-be fighter, Serwan, and meets his beautiful, haunted sister Roja. Rojava, for those who don't know, is a Syrian town and the title of this story comes from a podcast about the town at war and under siege. Roja, the narrator learns, means sunny day.

There is a slightly Conradian feel here, the sense of a good person meeting those of a downtrodden tribe and seeking to do what is right according not only to the law, but also according to their own lights. A passing reference to dirty protests in the Maze underlines how hard this can be. The political situation cannot change, and Serwan cannot be victorious. But the final scene makes clear that something of him lives on, and therein lies the faintest hope.

'The Follow Up'

Last Stop Wellsbourne: A CollectionThe third story in Last Stop Wellsbourne by Tom Johnston was first published in Cold Iron, a ghost story anthology by Iron Press. I was impressed with it when I read that book, and I was impressed all over again when I re-read the story this week. The tale is a simple one, at least superficially. A council worker whose job is cutting grass in parks and cemeteries recalls a terrible accident that killed a female colleague. But, as the story progresses, it is revealed that the accident might not have been quite what it seemed.

The description of the routine work and the gradual accumulation of detail here is very M.R. Jamesian. This is particularly true of passages such as 'I kept glimpsing long, black hair in the corner of my eye as the coroner questioned me'. There is also a surreal finale that could be interpreted as the proof of a mind fraying at the edges. The last line is especially effective, with its echo of 'The Waste Land' as well as many classic ghost stories.

So, another winner. This is shaping up to be a very enjoyable collection. Stay tuned for more.

Thursday 23 January 2020

'What I Found in the Shed'

The second story in Tom Johnstone's collection Last Stop Wellsbourne is more upbeat than the first, which is odd given the subject matter is death. First published in ST #31, the story remains strong.

A boy called David finds a strange machine under a dust sheet in his dad's garden shed. The device is, Dad explained, a 'Quickener' - if you feed in a photo of a person it produces a copy. David's little sister Emily died, and since then his mother has stayed in her room. So he does the obvious and produces a new Emily. Unfortunately, as Dad explains, the copies are imperfect. They take the new Emily up to Mum's room, where further revelations await...

This is a strange horror story, one in which love creates the most improbable and disturbing events. Which is, in a way, a realistic theme despite the fantastical premise. A weird tale that is also poignant in its economical depiction of loss and how we cope, or fail to cope, with it.

Wednesday 22 January 2020

'The Wakeman Recreation Ground'

The first story in Tom Johnstone's collection Last Stop Wellsbourne left a slightly nasty aftertaste. Not that it's a bad story, far from it - it is a very good story. But it does strike a little close to home. It's a story of fascists, Nazis, far-right thugs right here in little old Brexit-barmy England. The fact that they carry out the monstrous crime that forms the core of this tale in a fictitious town doesn't really take the sting out of the tale. 

The protagonist is a moderately successful author, Louise, who in her younger days was a member of a far-right group. One of her old associates asks her to meet him at the eponymous recreation ground, a place with a strange reputation. Louise was not impressed by the assorted thugs she met there and wants nothing to do with them. But a drone takes footage of the meeting and, when a horrific video of a racist crime is posted online, she falls under suspicion. The irony is that Louise was never quite what she seemed back in the day...

The group of fascists is well-drawn, and the actual incident is convincing in its brutal stupidity. What happens next is an audacious twist on the old theme of a revenant exacting revenge. The recreation ground is, it seems, exactly that. All in all, this is a horror story that manages to work on several levels and doesn't really offer much by way of closure. Rather like modern British politics. Join me in a day or two and I'll have more things to say, perhaps even  some cheerful ones!

Tuesday 21 January 2020

Last Stop Wellsbourne - Running Review

Yes, barely has my reviewing machinery had time to cool off after tackling an anthology inspired by W.B. Yeats (posh, or what?) here comes another one. Last September I mentioned Tom Johnstone's forthcoming collection from Omnium Gatherum. The author was kind enough to send me a PDF to review. Then I totally forgot about it over Christmas, like a nit. But now it's a new year and I am determined to do justice to this substantial book.

So, what's it all about? Well, let's blurb:

Wellsbourne’s a town like no other, an ordinary English seaside town where extraordinary things happen, a place of magic, mystery and madness. Here you’ll meet the woman stalked by drones and her own past, the politician who discovers the dark secret of the Green Man, the corpse collector with another self, the girl who menstruates yellow paint and the woman with the red, red hands. You’ll discover a garden that can disappear, boxes of books haunted by a dead writer and a 3D printer that can bring the dead back to life, though in a somewhat altered state. Wellsbourne welcomes careful drivers, but doesn’t necessarily let them leave again…

The 3D printer that can bring the dead back to life might ring a bell in your mind, gentle reader. Because the story, 'What I Found in the Shed', was published in ST #31, and a jolly good story it is. But let's start at the very beginning, with the introduction by Dr David Bramwell. 

I began to read 'Haunting Strange Places' on the assumption that Dr Bramwell was a real person. Then I wondered if he was a fictional creation of the author. Then I looked him up and found he exists and is interested in psychogeography, among other things. Anyway, Dr Bramwell's playful introduction concerns the Wellsbourne, which is apparently 'Brighton's lost river'. Tom Johnstone and Dr Bramwell contributed to an anthology. Later (we are told) Johnstone claimed to have discovered an entire town called Wellsbourne. 'And with that he was gone... He left no trace but this strange collection of interconnected short fiction, if it is fiction.'

Perhaps we're dealing with metafiction, here. But whatever you call it, it's the book I'm going to review, Stay tuned for more revelations about a town that may not exist, but is already more celebrated in literature than most towns that do.

Monday 20 January 2020

Agents of V.A.L.V.E.

Another of Cardinal Cox's poetry pamphlets has materialised in my domicile. It's hard not to type like a slightly bonkers Victorian, because this the third and last of his steampunk series. If you know of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. you'll pretty much get the basic idea. A group of very disparate and sometimes desperate vampire hunters travel the 19th world, getting into scrapes and protecting humankind. Or, as the poet put it in his accompanying blurb, Fearless Steampunk Vampire Killers.

The first poem, 'Carpathian Castle', is set in 1892 and sees Count Franz von Telek heading for the mysterious castle, 'where villagers said the devil lived'. The truth, if you know your Jules Verne, is very different. The novel that inspired the poem is arguably the final culmination of Verne's reverence for, and attempts to emulate, Edgar Allan Poe.

'Science usurps necromantic basis
Technology has now conquered the tomb'

Readers Poll - suspended for now

She yearns to vote, but is tragically denied...
Hello, ST readers. As you'll have noticed (if you follow this blog) I've had some problems with the polling of readers lately. I used to be able to embed a poll in the blog page itself, next to the other things to the right of this post. But then Google, which owns blogger, changed the rules on me and made it impossible to run polls in a simple, sensible way.

The last few polls, which were embedded in blog posts rather than on the 'front page', did not arouse much interest because they were clunky to use. I explored other possibilities, but neither Facebook nor Twitter offered the right resources either. So I have decided reluctantly to suspend the reader poll idea until I can figure out a way to make it work.

Sorry. I'll keep an eye on things and perhaps we can return to polling at some point in the future.

'The Hosts of the Air'

Subtitled 'Yeats and the Sidhe', the last contribution to The Far Tower (see running review below) is an essay by Nina Antonia. It is a thoughtful and engaging piece, examining the way the poet's beliefs evolved. Antonia explores how the young Yeats was haunted and enchanted by both family ghosts and Irish folklore, and how his discovery of spiritualism meshed with far older beliefs. It's fascinating to ponder how Yeats, scion of the Protestant Ascendancy, was both deeply involved with and yet stood apart from the beliefs of the great mass of Irish people. This essay is a fine coda to the fiction, and I'm glad that it was published alongside such splendid stories.

'Shadowy Waters'

The last story in the anthology The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats is by Reggie Oliver, who has established himself over the last two decades as one of the most highly-regarded authors of the traditional ghost story. 'Shadowy Waters' takes its title from a dramatic poem by Yeats, who was of course a firm believer in a (rather odd) afterlife.

The narrator, Villiers, journeys to Alderness in East Anglia for a funeral and to act as the executor for a former lover, Nell. Villiers is a widowed retired teacher who acted in his younger days, and enjoyed the pleasures of first love with Nell in the seaside town. Nell, however, was a New Age type, and Villiers eventually broke it off, feeling they were too different. When he arrives he finds that Nell apparently left most of her wealth to a donkey sanctuary owned by a spiritualist/guru charlatan, Hamilton Souter. But Nell's lawyer suggests that there may have been a second will, now apparently lost...

Souter is excellently drawn, and the story moves neatly from a poignant meditation on loneliness and regret to full-on horror as serious villainy occurs. A trick box acts as a neat metaphor for the process of both solving a mundane mystery and implying a far greater one. Fortunately for Villiers, Nell comes to the rescue in an unexpected but appropriate fashion. However, the final sentence - 'I was alone again' - sums up what has been lost.

This is a suitably strong ending to an excellent selection, one that explores many facets of the poet's works, life, and philosophy. All credit to editor Mark Valentine and the Swan River Press for producing such a beautiful book. The cover design deserves lavish praise - it is by Meggan Kehrli from artwork by John Coulthart.

Saturday 18 January 2020

'This Crumbling Pageant'

Lynda E. Rucker's contribution to The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats has an epigram from 'The Second Coming'. 'The darkness drops again' sets the tone for a story about a family having a summer holiday during what may well be the end of the world.

'The news had been bad all day.' So begins the story proper, with Astrid and her kinfolk vacationing by the Mississippi, but obsessively checking their phones for news updates. Astrid happens to find a book in their rented house, a work about Yeats and the Golden Dawn. Her cousin confuses them with the far-right Greek political party, and the poet's dalliance with fascism is inevitably raised. Astrid prefers to focus on automatic writing,

We learn that, since childhood, Astrid has been a visionary - someone who can see the 'thin places' in our reality where something more intense, more really real, breaks through. She succeeds in producing automatic writing on her sketchpad, but cannot bear to read it, insists her brother throw it away.

This is not a story with a climax, a simple pay-off, but offers instead a meditation on the all-too-plausible end to all things human. What precisely is happening is not defined, but it doesn't really need to be. When you're done, you're done. Astrid keeps thinking about the astronauts in the ISS. 'When and how would they learn that the cataclysm had arrived?'

While I was impressed by the story, I wish it had not been so obviously necessary to write it. But here we are. And that was the penultimate story. Next up, a tale by another early contributor to ST, Reggie Oliver.

Wednesday 15 January 2020

'The Messiah of Blackhall Place'

Derek John's contribution to The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats presents your humble reviewer with a slight problem. It was inspired by one of Yeats' best-known poems, but to say which one would give the game away. So let me instead dance around the story a bit and avoid any spoilers.

Set in roughly the same interwar period as John Howard's tale, 'The Messiah of Blackhall Place' concerns a man who takes past in the post-Great War renascence in spiritualism and psychical research. The narrator is a sceptic who will have none of Conan Doyle's fairy photos and feels compelled to unmask obviously fraudulent mediums. However, he does meet a genuine seeker after higher truths, the invalid 'Doctor Vanston', who has formed an elaborate philosophy concerning our next life, or lives.

The story concerns what happens after Vanston dies and apparently becomes a nuisance to a group of table turners, a 'frustrator' who keeps muscling in on seances. The narrator tries to engage his former acquaintance and get him to leave the group alone. The scene in which a spirit guide, an ancient Egyptian, is drowned out by Vanston's monomaniacal communication is especially well done. The picture of the afterlife presented is rich and strange enough to please Willy Yeats' himself. What's more, it turns out that Vanston - or rather, his spirit - has made a major blunder and admitted something terrible to our mortal plane.

This is a resonant, rather serious tale, despite the fact that spiritualism is often seen as faintly absurd. It lingers in the mind, or at least it did in mine.

Tuesday 14 January 2020

'Cast a Cold Eye'

Here I am more than halfway through my running review of The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats, and I have not addressed a really obvious question. Silly me. The question is, do you need an in-depth knowledge of Yeats' life and works to enjoy this anthology? The answer is no, you can appreciate the stories in isolation, as they are not pendants or commentaries. That said, if you are aware of the author's most famous poems it might help you appreciate the stories. 

For instance, 'Cast a Cold Eye' by Timothy J. Jarvis takes its title from Yeats' epitaph, taken from his poem 'Under Ben Bulben'. 

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death,
Horseman, pass by!

The story itself is a little gem of what may be magical realism, or something like it. The overall feel is that Flann O'Brien and J.L. Borges got together down the pub to chat about Yeats. The central premise is simple enough - an Irish poet dies in exile in France, Later his bones, during the turmoil of war, are thrown willy-nilly into an ossuary with those of many obscure locals. 

After hostilities are over the bones are to be repatriated, so a carefully selected, vaguely plausible collection is assembled into a skeleton and sent to Ireland. The adventures of some of these bones constitute the bulk of the story. There is also a clever framing narrative involving a talking skull in a tree in Istanbul - or Byzantium, as Willy Yeats might have called it. 

As the story closes the sea is suitably dolphin torn, perhaps even gong tormented. This is arguably the most poetic story thus far, and perhaps the one that Yeats would have liked best. So, another change of pace and approach in this varied assemblage. What next? Stay tuned as we home in on'The Messiah of Blackhall Place' by Derek John. 

Monday 13 January 2020

'The Property of the Dead'

John Howard's story in The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats is the first to include an actual tower. The story is set in Ireland between the wars (from a British perspective), though the nameless narrator more accurately describes the period as after the Civil War that heralded the creation of the Free State on a partitioned island.

The narrator is a member of a club where religion and politics are not discussed, and whose members can introduce guests who may be of interest. One such guest is the son of a famous architect who disappeared in strange circumstances after building a country house in a remote area. The house is of such modern design that we learn many critics felt its creator must be mad. 

The key feature of the house is a tower, and through extracts from his journal we discoverer that the architect felt moved to top off the tower with a lunar observatory. Shortly after, the man vanished. Michael, the architect's son, travels to the house and suffers what may be the same fate as his father. The narrator arrives after an apparent earthquake destroys the elaborate dome, stunting the tower, and tries to make sense of what has happened.

Here the mystery is not explained in conventional ghost story terms, though there are overtones of Blackwood's 'A Victim of Higher Space'. The implication is that, like poetry, architecture can open a conduit to a higher reality, one that may prove fateful, or even fatal, but could also offer revelations beyond those of our troubled, mundane world.

So, we're past the halfway mark in this anthology, and I have enjoyed all the stories thus far. It's a tribute to editor Mark Valentine that they are so diverse and diverting. More of this running review very soon!

Saturday 11 January 2020

'Hermit for Hire'

Catriona Lally's contribution to The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats begins with a very famous quote from 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree'. Unfortunately, it soon turns out that to 'live alone in the bee-loud glade' is not so easy nowadays.

An Irish pensioner, fed up with a life of tea, telly, and the shops, decides to find a log cabin and become a hermit. He goes into considerable detail online, finding plenty of cabins - log and otherwise - but none that are suitable. He even finds that there are log cabin flatpack kits - who knew? - but is well aware that he can't 'assemble a flatpack stool without wondering where all the leftover screws were supposed to go and why the fourth leg was a bit rickety'.

This engaging story is a healthy mediation on the gap between the ideal world envisioned by poets and the sad reality most of us are compelled to struggle with. Thinking of basics, like how to milk a cow, does tend to make one appreciate the comforts of a bustling consumerist age. Eventually our hero is compelled to stretch out on the sofa in front of the telly and have a nice cup of tea. There is beauty, even poetry, in the mundane.

This pleasant tale doesn't outstay its welcome and I look forward to seeing more of Lally's work. Next, I'll be reading a story by Supernatural Tales veteran contributor John Howard.

Thursday 9 January 2020

'The Shiftings'

The third story in The Far Tower, Stories for W.B. Yeats, is by Rosanne Rabinowitz, who addresses the poet's spiritualist faith head on. It's a relatively light story, compared to the first two offerings in the book, but still has a hint of darkness toward the conclusion.

Set in 1980, 'The Shiftings' is the story of Ethel, a novelist who was once Yeats' lover and muse. A feminist and socialist, she was at odds with the poet over politics and other matters, but retains a strong affection for him. When she is approached by Lucy, a student, who is studying Ethel's own work, it seems to act as a kind of catalyst. Compelled to focus on her own past, Ethel conjures up the spirit of Yeats, who begins to communicate with her through automatic writing.

Dead, since 1939, but in this story he still won't shut up
The exchanges between live novelist and dead poet are well realised and very entertaining. We learn that Yeats has been through the Shiftings of the title, apparently the living through of all a deceased person's possible lives - a kind of Spiritualist purgatory? 

Yeats then explains that he wishes to continue his literary career from beyond the veil. Ethel balks at the idea of being a conduit for a dead poet, however distinguished. It is hinted that the spirit has fastened on Lucy instead. Ethel is left to cultivate her garden.

This is a lively, engaging story that manages to offer a compelling character study of a writer and puts Yeats in the historical context of a turbulent century. Another winner, I think. More from this running (or at least lolloping) review very shortly.

Wednesday 8 January 2020

'Daemon Est Deus Inversus'

D.P. Watt's contribution to The Far Tower: Stories for W.B. Yeats stands in marked contrast to Ron Weighell's tale (see blog post below) of obscure manuscripts and mystic dreams. Watt's protagonist is the black sheep of an old army family, a man who spends his life in jail or committing crimes that will get him another spell in chokey. He seems to be a worthless individual, someone with nothing to contribute and who will die unmourned. Yet one act of compassion introduces him to a new world, one of the strange, visionary experiences in which (among other things) ordinary people's faces are transformed into luminous silver masks.

The nameless narrator steals a woman's purse by playing on her innocent kindness. Then he discovers that her husband and child are dead, and that he had dropped her in it financially. He returns the purse, anonymously. Unguessed of depths of compassion are revealed, along with it a desire to know more of his own family. This quest leads to the discovery of tapes and journals that offer a strange, numinous perspective on some of Britain's wars, including the suppression of the Easter Rising in 1916 and the Falklands in 1982. Without going into details, I was reminded of the film The Man Who Saw God, which dealt with a British soldier's religious experience during the post-war conflict in Cyprus.

There is a reference to Machen's Angel of Mons, of course. While the author acknowledges that it was simply a work of fiction, the implication is being that there is a deeper truth to found in the way the story caught the imagination. The narrator's life is transformed by dreams of wondrous beings. Far from a crook returning to the straight and narrow, he becomes a somewhat Blakeian figure, a beggar who struggles to at might communicate the epiphany he has experienced, a sort of modern Tom O'Bedlam.

Watt sets himself a hard task but, I think, his prose rises to the occasion. 'Each day I am assailed by thunder, scourged by rain, scorched by sun and thrashed by wind. It is my penance for my past and payment for my future - for the night of monstrous wonders to come.'

With luck I'll have another story read by the weekend. I don't think it would be sensible to go through this remarkable book too quickly.

Tuesday 7 January 2020

'Under the Frenzy of the Fourteenth Moon'

The first story in The Far Tower, Stories for W.B. Yeats, is by Ron Weighell.

As one would expect from the author of The White Road, it shows a firm grasp of the esoteric and has a fairly traditional structure. The narrator, who has a lifelong fascination with the poetry and occultism of Yeats, makes the acquaintance of a man who possesses some unpublished papers by the great man. The narrator visits the elderly Thias Powers at his 'Palladian manse hidden amid picturesque, if discreetly dwindling, acreage'. There he explores a wonderful library (rather like an M.R. James narrator), discovering priceless volumes on mysticism, alchemy and other forms of arcane lore.

Thias Powers, once a handsome young man but now somewhat gone to seed, seems reluctant to show the narrator any Yeats papers, however. Instead he directs his visitor to the 'Faery Thorn', a tree where the locals place offerings. Our nameless narrator picks up a small, smooth stone, 'a black disc no bigger than the flat of my hand'. When I read this, it seemed unwise, but perhaps I was wrong. Back at the house Thias finally produces the papers, some of which consist of automatic writing produced by Yeats' wife, Georgie, a spiritualist medium.

The Far Tower - Running Review

This beautiful book from the Swan River Press offers nine stories inspired by William Butler Yeats. The great Irish poet was a firm believer in Spiritualism - his English wife Georgie was a medium and the couple held seances.

As Mark Valentine points out in his excellent introduction, this aspect of Yeats' life was seen as a tad embarrassing by literary critics until relatively recently. And yet, as Auden pointed out in his 1939 elegy on Yeats, the poet and mystic was 'silly like us' - a complex and often baffling individual whose life and work were strangely intertwined. Like most people, he assumed the existence of a world beyond our own, albeit one that might well be illusory. Unlike most people, he set out to explore that world by deploying the talents of a creative genius.

Valentine rightly puts Yeats' mysticism in context as a modernist trope - they were all it. But Yeats went deeper and endured longer. The fact that critics tended to dismiss his occult interests is, I think rightly, linked to the general snobbishness of academic criticism.

'The same patrician disdain meant that the supernatural fiction of Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood; the epic fantasies of Tolkien, Peake, and Eddison; the tales of magic and witchcraft by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Stella Benson, Mary Butts, and others were largely ignored. Original and challenging work, such as David Lindsay’s visionary novels, Claude Houghton’s metaphysical thrillers, Naomi Mitchison’s historical epics, had little chance of acceptance. The effect on some of these writers was not minor: for some it meant poverty, neglect, marginalisation, disillusion.'

Yeats, of course, enjoyed fame and fortune, and his critical reputation remains high. It is impossible to imagine a world in which literature is valued while Yeats is not. But what this volume does is explore - via nine fictions - Yeats' the mystic, the table-turner, the visionary. I'm looking forward to sharing my thoughts on these stories. So, here beginning the first running review of 2020. 

Saturday 4 January 2020

Poll Winner!

Supernatural Tales 41Congratulations to Steve Duffy, whose story 'No Passage Landward' won the readers poll for issue 41. He wins the heady sum of £25, and I only hope he can be trusted with that kind of fiscal responsibility.

I'm still inviting people to vote on the best story in the latest issue, number 42, but I've given up trying to embed a poll on this blog. It isn't satisfactory so I'm just asking readers to let me know via email or social media.

Thursday 2 January 2020

Legionnaire - Review

Cover at by Paul Lowe
The latest title from Sarob Press is a rare - perhaps unique - publishing event. This is the first ghost story novella by C.E. (Clive) Ward, one of the stalwarts of the M.R. Jamesian scene. And what a little cracker it is. Legionnaire ticks all the Jamesian boxes, but also offers a central scenario that pays tribute to that other British author, C.P. Wren, author of Beau Geste and other ripping yarns of the French Foreign Legion.

As with all traditional ghost stories, this one begins at a leisurely pace, with an English narrator describing his acquaintanceship with an elderly French dealer in militaria. The 'slight haze of distance' is produced when we learn the narrator met Armand Lucette in the 1969s. Lucette, it transpires, served in the Foreign Legion during the First World War, when France was forced to withdraw most of its troops from its North African domains. As a result, Lucette's small company was sent out to handle a difficult situation in a remote desert fort in Morocco. 

Ward sets up the situation with meticulous skill. We get the customary multinational group of Legionnaires, plus a new commanding officer who drinks and is bad for morale. The local tribesmen are restless and the fort at Seni-Bebrou has a dodgy reputation. When they arrive, there are ominous signs that they may face more than tribal insurrection. Voices are heard at night...

Clive Ward is an expert on military history and it shows in the way he handles the small, everyday details. Men are of course fixated on bodily comforts, long for decent grub, yearn for a soft bed and so forth. His characters are, by and large, good soldiers and not easily spooked. But as things escalate it becomes clear that no amount of mere physical courage can prevail in this situation. 

There are Berber attacks, and the order to retreat is given. Then begins the long march across the desert. Strange figures are seen in a whirling sandstorm, men glimpsed marching where no me could be. We know, of course, that Lucette survived. But there is a coda that suggests that what he encountered in the desert never really left him.

Suffice to say that this longer tale is every bit as inventive as Ward's short stories, and will certainly please his legion of admirers. 

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...