Friday, 22 October 2021
Thursday, 21 October 2021
Wednesday, 20 October 2021
Tuesday, 19 October 2021
|Dustjacket art by Paul Lowe|
A new collection of seven stories from Peter Bell is always a joyous event for those who like their weird fiction to be intelligent, well-crafted, and humane. I added 'humane' there because Bell's work is often centred on human suffering above and beyond the usual rigmarole of the ghostly horror tale. And the lead story here is an excellent example.
'Lullaby' is set in Ireland during the terrible (and, from a British perspective, eternally shameful) period of the the famine. During the 1840s potato blight ravaged Europe. Ireland was especially hard hit, not least thanks to the contemptuous dismissal of the famine by the Tory elite. (Sound familiar?) In this story the great hunger strikes a small fishing community in Donegal, where a young widow, Sheelagh, lives with her daughter Erin.
Unfortunately Sheelagh is forced to abide with her late husband's mother and aunt, two awful old ratbags who scare Erin with dark folk tales when Sheelagh is away. Erin shivers in fear of the Dearth Bird that swoops in by night to take its victims. Sheelagh, however, enriches Erin's life with more positive stories, involving a wonderful Blue Bird. Erin is also shown a special, sacred place in the mountains, where the old gods were worshipped.
As the worst of times approaches, the Blue Bird and the Death Bird feature more prominently in Erin's dreams and daytime imaginings. At the same time the community starts to blame Margot Bailey, an old 'wise woman', for a series of deaths. Eventually this leads to a hideous crime. Sheelagh vanishes, and then Erin is visited by night by what might be a ghost, or something altogether stranger. The story ends with a coda as an old man recalls a bizarre experience in the scared place, which offers the reader some closure. It's an intensely poetic story. I was surprised that it begins with an epigraph from Wilde, but by the end I got the point. Wilde would have approved the way that Bell finds beauty and hope even in the most terrible tragedy.
Monday, 18 October 2021
Ron Weighell, whose collection The White Road is rightly considered a classic, passed away last December. Now Sarob Press is to publish his novel, King Satyr. This will generate a great deal of ezcitement, as Weighell is one of the true greats of modern British weird fiction. More information here on the Sarob blog. I just have to quote this here, though:
In Ron's Afterword to KING SATYR he shares a discovery from his research into Mayan folk magic: ‘...there is an animal companion or familiar, associated with the Shamanistic opening of the portals of the Underworld, called the Wahy or Weyhel. One of the most powerful forms of the Weyhel is the Scribano, or writer. This kind of Weyhel is considered immortal, because even after death he can create himself anew with a piece of paper. He can reinvent himself by writing himself into existence.’
Sunday, 17 October 2021
Saturday, 16 October 2021
Friday, 15 October 2021
Wednesday, 13 October 2021
And Where Will She Go and What Shall She Do?
So, we like to go to graveyards at night and get drunk, do a bit of drugs, play with a Ouija board on a grave, party a little, try to summon ghosts, talk about death and think about dying, discuss demonic possession and generally flaunt our youth, vitality and desirability to the resident dead. The more isolated and darker and haunted the place the better.
A Fine Cellar
It had been a most satisfactory dinner. Followed by stimulating conversation with my friend and host and a little tasting of wine. He kept a good cellar, did Jules Fanshawe. A fine cellar in fact.
Wednesday, 29 September 2021
Thursday, 23 September 2021
Saturday, 18 September 2021
Sunday, 12 September 2021
Monday, 6 September 2021
Thursday, 2 September 2021
Wednesday, 1 September 2021
Long-term ST contributor Helen Grant made her name with young adult novels with a mystery/thriller element. Her latest novel represents a departure, in that it's aimed at a general audience. It is also her first novel that is also a ghost story, with full-on Gothic elements. Here is the blurb.
Sometimes it's terrifying, loving someone this much...For Fen Munro and her fiancé James, it is a dream come true: an escape from London to a beautiful house in the stunning Perthshire countryside. Barr Dubh house is modern, a building with no past at all. But someone walks the grounds, always dressed in lavender. Under a lichenous stone in an abandoned graveyard, a hideous secret lies buried. And at night, Fen is tormented by horrifying dreams. Someone wants Fen's happiness, and nothing is going to stop them—not even death...
The first chapter sets down a marker for horror. Fen wakes up not in bed with her beloved James, but interred in a coffin wearing an antiquated wedding dress. Fen has her own demons, the result of an unhappy childhood marred by death and loneliness. She rebels against her oppressive parents, gets a job in publishing, and meets exciting new author James. Much to her own surprise they fall in love and buy a house in a part of Scotland the author brings to live with ease (no doubt in part because she lives there).
But of course, the house is haunted. We know from the start, because this is a Gothic novel and Fen is the beautiful, troubled heroine. However, it's also a modern novel and Fen is not just some panicky idiot flitting around in a nightie going 'Eek!' She tries to handle the problem. Admittedly her first attempt is to ignore it, but that's grown-up problem handling in my book. When it doesn't work in this book, Fen starts to try and find out more about the house that stood on the site of her new home, and uncovers a grimly convincing Victorian tale that nods to Dickens and Le Fanu, not to mention Poe.
No spoilers here. Suffice to say that virtue prevails, more or less, and true love finds a way. But the perils of Fen and the way in which she ultimately faces them makes for an absorbing read. This is a very satisfying ghost story by an author who not only knows the genre inside out, but truly loves it.
Friday, 27 August 2021
The course of true love never did run smooth, but true love has got nothing on publishing. After experimenting with Amazon I found that the actual format of the proof copy I obtained is too big to fit in standard A5 envelopes, and there were also some cost issues re: postage etc. So I've had another got at the old Lulu site, despite its annoying clunkiness, and so far it seems to be working okay. So, with luck, issue 47 will be published on time.
What's in it?
New stories by: veteran British contributors Jane Jakeman, Carole Tyrrell, and Mark Nicholls, plus two new stories by American authors Clint Smith and Elie Lichstein. More info to follow! Cover art entitled 'Gibbet' is by Sam Dawson.
Monday, 16 August 2021
Sorry I haven't been blogging much of late. I could blame pressures of work but, to be honest, I haven't been doing much reading or viewing since the pandemic hit. One might expect repeated lockdowns to generate a need for more fiction, not less. But there it is. I write and edit a lot of horror fiction and, perhaps for that reason, seek enjoyment in other genres to a great extent.
That said, I plan to continue publishing the magazine so long as people want it. But I won't be publishing any more print-on-demand issues at Lulu.com. The site has become ever more difficult to use and unresponsive. Lately I have run into a brick wall so far as issue 47 is concerned - I can't get the site to work at all. Frankly their customer service has always been poor so I've decided to take the whole shebang over to Amazon Direct Publishing.
I know some may object to buying from Amazon but the fact is I know how to use the interface already and time is ticking by. It also means that both print and ebook editions of ST will be available at the same place from now on. Hope this doesn't upset anyone and that ST's small band of readers will stick with me.
End of public service announcement.
Wednesday, 11 August 2021
I am a huge fan of anthology/portmanteau horror movies. I am always ready to take the hit 'n' miss nature of several short stories over the potential disappointment of a 'normal' film that starts well but then fails in some way. So I was interested to find Afterimages, a Singapore horror movie, pop up on Prime lately.
The framing story is simple - five film students get to spend time lounging around for the holidays in a big old house. The time of year is Ghost Month, when various sacrifices - usually imitation currency - are burned for the souls of dead ancestors. One of the students makes and burns an imitation paper camera instead. The next day, in the ashes, they find some photos. The next logical step is to burn an effigy of an old film camera. Sure enough, a reel of old-school celluloid film appears.
The first film is subtitled Ghost Pool Leg. A voyeur pervs at various female neighbours, and becomes intrigued by a beautiful young woman who regularly goes swimming just after midnight. He goes down to the pool and is warned about ghosts by a caretaker. Of course he ignores the warning and encounters an aquatic ghost. The water sequences are very well done, and the plot - while obvious - moves along nicely.
The next paper camera to be burned is more modern in appearance. Sure enough, the resulting medium is a large memory card. On this is the story Xiao Bao Bao. A young woman living in a high rise witnesses a neighbour's suicide. She takes a picture of the body and is then haunted by the victim. Again, it's well-handled, with a lot of slick and stylish visuals to jazz up what is a fairly simple tale.
The third tale is produced by a camera with the letters CCTV on it. The resulting security tape is footage of an elevator that breaks down. As well as the normal characters trapped inside, there is a beautiful woman with a very strange secret. The title, Skin Deep, is a clue.
The fourth film, Rekindling, concerns a dismembered corpse dumped in a river that proves to be more agile than most. Here there are some predictable jump scares, but a very good central performance and some nice effects make it watchable. There's a distinct 'Beast With Five Fingers' vibe at times.
The final film concerns the students' plans to assemble their 'found footage' into a project. It does not go well, and they find themselves watching the forces they have tinkered with close in on them. Then we switch to an investigation of the students' deaths, which is complicated by the presence of an extra body...
If you like collections of short horror movies put together with confidence and skill, this might be for you. There are a few bumpy moments, and I think a major strategic error was to have all the characters in every story speak English, rather than Chinese with subtitles. The result is dialogue that at times sounds a little stilted or requires subtitles anyway. But this is a minor quibble. It's a nice watch.
Monday, 9 August 2021
Sunday, 1 August 2021
Saturday, 31 July 2021
Not one but two ST regulars are to be found in a prestigious new collection from Black Shuck Books.
Web page here.
GREAT BRITISH HORROR 6: ARS GRATIA SANGUIS, features eleven more previously unpublished stories from authors at the very top of their game.
The Acolytes Triptych ~ Steve Duffy
Untitled (Cloud of Blood) ~ Brian Evenson
The Field Has Eyes, the Wood Has Ears ~ Helen Grant
From Life ~ Muriel Gray
Everybody’s Always Losing Somebody ~ Sean Hogan
The Redeemers ~ Andrew Hook
Having a Benny ~ Sarah Lotz
Blind Man’s Buff ~ Lucie McKnight Hardy
Our Lady of Flies ~ Teika Marija Smits
Sibyl ~ Lisa Tuttle
The Waiting Room ~ Stephen Volk
Wednesday, 14 July 2021
The cheap cover hints at a cheap production, and sure enough it is a barebones effort. However, all the readings are here. (Warning - there are several Quick Classics MRJ's but this is only one containing all the readings.) The contents are:
Tuesday, 13 July 2021
A fascinating article about a celebrated Victorian haunting here.
At the end of April 1882, two months after the Despards established their new household at ‘Donore’, Rosina saw an apparition for the first time. One evening after retiring to her room she was disturbed by the sound of someone at the bedroom door. Thinking that it may have been her mother, who we are told was an invalid who did not enjoy the best of health, she stepped to the door and on opening it reported the following:
“I saw no one; but on going a few steps along the passage, I saw the figure of a tall lady, dressed in black, standing at the head of the stairs. After a few moments she descended the stairs, and I followed for a short distance, feeling curious what it could be. I had only a small piece of candle, and it suddenly burnt itself out; and being unable to see more, I went back to my room.”
Friday, 2 July 2021
Wednesday, 30 June 2021
There is a virtual book launch on Facebook tomorrow (Thursday 1st July) at 7pm. Find out more here.
Tuesday, 29 June 2021
The last three stories in Steve Duffy's new collection from Sarob cover the last three months of the year. 'The Ice Beneath Us' was not first published in ST, but I had the pleasure of reading it early because it was inspired by an episode of Frasier. If you know the series, it's the ice-fishing one with the cabin on the frozen lake. Suffice to say that this take on that chilly notion does not end with a heartwarming moment. Blood-chilling, yes. It is, I think, the best modern takes on a legend that (not to give too much away) inspired one of the true classics of the genre.
'The Purple-Tinted Window' appeared in ST. On re-reading it remains an economical and moving account of someone faced with impossible choices. A young woman is possessed by a paranormal 'gift' that is of no value. All it does is point the way to her fate at the hands of a brute who wields near absolute power. She becomes an internet bride via the Filipina Dreamgirl agency and leaves her homeland for a cold, unwelcoming realm. There is a lyrical beauty about the writing that gives it the quality of a folk tale. And we all know how those generally turn out.
Finally, there's 'The God Storage Options', the kind of story that Duffy has made his own - what might be termed grotty horror. It takes as its theme the fact that many normal people in our malfunctioning 'society' end up in bloody awful places feeling miserable and lonely. Sometimes they escape. Sometimes not. Its main character is stuck in a converted old factory on an industrial estate over Christmas 1999. Things do not improve from this start. The ending is, once more, a variation on a classic theme and a damn good example of how to do it right.
The notes by the author are, of course, informative and witty. I learned a few things from them, and I'd already discussed most of the stories with Steve Duffy. This is a fine book, by a first-rate author. It is also an object lesson in putting the hours in, refining each sentence until it works, respecting your reader enough to present him with nothing but good prose. It should take pride of place on the shelf of anyone who values the ghost story, the weird tale, Gothic horror, and good fiction in general.
Saturday, 26 June 2021
Thursday, 24 June 2021
It's been many years since I produced a Supernatural Tales special i.e. a volume of short stories by a single author. However, cover artist and regular contributor Sam Dawson persuaded me to give it another go. So here it is - now available in paperback from the Lulu site. I can vouch for the quality of these stories. They are readable, interesting, intelligent, sometimes funny, more often disturbing. Recommended.
Not only is it jam-packed with tales of mystery, horror, and unease, but it's features some excellent black and white illustrations by Sam.
As you can see from the contents page below, it's a substantial collection. I can recommend all these stories. The volume retails for £5.95 plus p&p, and is currently available only as print-on-demand from the Lulu site.
Monday, 21 June 2021
ST's redoubtable deputy editor and proofreader has a new book out from Sparsile Press. Find out more at the link, where you can also read some of Stephen's short fiction. I'll be publishing an extract from Kindred Spirit in ST 48.
George Viviani has it all, a publishing contract, a feisty mistress and a loving family waiting for him at home. It's a pity he'll be dead before the day is done.
But it doesn't stop there. Soon it seems that anyone with a connection to George is experiencing strange and frightening phenomena.
Gradually, a widening group of desperate people find themselves drawn together, as they are taken over by a creeping sense of unreality.
Events begin to spiral out of control and only one man—Cheyne Tully, ghost hunter—has a chance of discovering the truth before it's too late.
Sparsile Books, see sparsilebooks.com
Order from Waterstones, Foyles, Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble
The next three stories in Steve Duffy's new collection from Sarob Press showcase his versatility rather well. And, as before, each one is fitted to a month, beginning with July and a tale that brings a chill to a summer's day.
'Even Clean Hands Can Do Damage' - yet another brilliant title - was published in ST and offers a new take on an old theme. A bereaved mother meets a medium who tells her that the spirit of her dead daughter is nearby. The medium is not lying. But despite her honest intentions, she does great harm. And it all pivots on something utterly commonplace, a real world incident that we've all noticed in some context at some time.
'A Day at the Hotel Radium' could hardly be more different, at first glance. The time is September, 1939, and millions of Europeans are in motion. Many, such as the main character here, are fleeing. The innocent academic escapes by train to a microstate - not unlike Lichtenstein - where he encounters an old friend. The Hotel Radium is a beautiful, relaxing place. Our refugee remembers the pleasures of his youth, but at the same time suffers a terrible vision of a future railway journey with a very different destination.
'Bears: A Fairy Tale of 1958' is about bears, in 1958 .The three bears - mother, father, baby - move into a suburban neighbourhood in Eisenhower's America, but never quite manage to fit in. Mama Bear can't really handle delicate crockery, Baby bear does what comes naturally in next door's garden, and so forth. Goldie Locke, the little girl next door, brings matters to a climax. Suffice to say it's not a fairy tale in the standard sense, but then life in the suburbs isn't really life either.
To be concluded...
Sunday, 13 June 2021
Even further back in time we find 'The Clay Party', a group of pioneers setting out for California in the May of 1846. The story is told from several perspectives - the local newspaper, a search party, a loyal husband's journal, a mother's letter to her daughter. Together they make up a memorable addition to the sub-genre of Western survival horror. In a way it holds up a mirror to the previous tale, offering hope of a sort despite the bloodletting and worse that occurs as the Clay Party departs from the Oregon Trail along an ill-conceived 'cutout'.
'No Passage Landward' (from ST 41, Autumn 2019) brings history up to date, so to speak, as the hapless Phoebe explores Anglesey and discovers a grim secret. This is a story that works thanks to the ratchet effect, whereby a character takes a series of small decisions that add up to one big mistake. Strange encounters and a grim medieval legacy contrive to trap Phoebe, despite her good-natured, energetic approach. Far from having a pleasant June excursion, she is forced to see history as something we are all part of, not merely something we can dabble in as a diversion.
So we reach early summer, without an ice cream or a sandcastle in sight. But the next three stories will, I'm sure, offer entertainments of other kinds.
(to be continued)
Saturday, 12 June 2021
This is not so much a running review as an appreciation of a book by a friend. A book in which, as it happens, five of the twelve stories included were previously published in Supernatural Tales, and so they're obviously first-rate. So instead I'll just muse a little on the contents, and follow the author's neat conceit - that each story is set in a different month of the year, beginning in January.
The January tale is the suitably wintry 'Chambers of the Heart' (from ST 40, 2019). A sensible woman, rather an Aickmanesque character, is employed by a dodgy character to front a questionable business in the Thatcher's London. An unusual visitor requests a meeting with her employer. When this takes place, a portal to Somewhere Else seems to be opened. As the author makes clear in his notes, this is partly a homage to the long tradition of doors in various walls that lead to unlikely places. As such, it is one of the best modern examples. And it's more, thanks to the charm and quirkiness of the Dante-quoting Mr. Aamon.
February sees another great genre tradition revived and rejigged in 'The Other Four O'Clock'. Living up to that excellent title, the story takes us deep into the realms of English folklore, and in particular the legends of towns lost the advancing coast. Dunwich gets a mention as Matt and Samiya explore the environs of their holiday cottage. Matt would have preferred the Algarve, but Samiya wanted East Anglia and birdwatching on the RSPB reserve. Matt, the insomniac of the pair, listens to the chimes of the church bells in the small hours. And at four o'clock in the morning, he hears the chimes of another church, faint with distance.
The story is so enjoyable in part because of the way modern ingredients - Googling on an iPhone - have much the same effect as quizzing garrulous locals in the four-ale bar of the Edwardian ghostly tale. Enough information is gleaned to warn the reader of where Matt is going to end up after he encounters what may be Black Shuck, the legendary dog with glowing eyes. What makes the tale more moving is the way that the couple's love for one another ensures that it will be a double tragedy.
Moving on to March, we find 'The Last House on Mullible Street'. This is another take on a classic theme, albeit in a very different way. The period is the Blitz, the setting London's East End, and the narrators are a group of old men whose reminiscences are being transcribed from tapes by the author. This cleverly combines the traditional approach - 'The following documents came into my hands...' - with a new twist. Here were are offered the voices of working class characters, not as comic supporting characters but playing the central roles in the story.
The house in question belongs to an reclusive Jewish scholar. The voices of the old-timers record how, as teenagers, they resolved to sneak into his house and see if the rumors about him having a hoard of gold were true. What they find is that his real treasure consists of books, lots of them, and that he is not exactly alone. The story is reminiscent of Robert Westall's wartime tales, direct and full of incident, with many authentic details. While not a new story, it's themes - bigotry and how to combat it - remain all too relevant.
(To be continued)
Monday, 7 June 2021
Tuesday, 1 June 2021
Friday, 28 May 2021
Wednesday, 19 May 2021
Wednesday, 12 May 2021
The National Trust has just found out that one of its rudest attractions is also one of its oldest. The Cerne Abbas chalk giant is almost as old as the kingdom England itself.
Generations have speculated about the age and meaning of the club-brandishing giant hewn into a Dorset hillside. Was he a depiction of the legendary demi-god Hercules, an ancient fertility symbol, or even the soldier and statesman Oliver Cromwell? Another theory holds that the figure was carved around the body of a giant who was slain by local people after he terrorised the countryside.
Now, after state-of-the art sediment analysis jointly funded by the National Trust, the University of Gloucestershire, Allen Environmental Archaeology and the Pratt Bequest, National Trust archaeologists have concluded the giant was probably first constructed in the late Saxon period.
Wednesday, 5 May 2021
Now available in paperback!
This is an absorbing collection of stories, poems, and other writings of a supernatural nature by members of the eponymous society. It was established in 1860 and new members had to be elected by the current ones. Like many similar societies it existed for members to read papers on any topic they considered interesting, to be followed by a discussion.
In an excellent preface, editor Robert Lloyd Parry (of Theatre fame) offers a perspective on the clubs most famous member, M.R. James, and the way in which his first two ghost stories were read aloud to members. the first two stories in the book are the original versions of ‘Canon Albéric's Scrapbook’ and 'Lost Hearts’. Neither differ much from the versions that appeared in James first collection of ghost stories.
While Anderson/ could be taken as a portrait of the author, A in lost heart is the diametrical opposite. And the origins of the story how far from cozy. It was, it seems from a medieval manuscript on the subject of the Jewish blood libel that James seems to have got his idea for the hideous crimes committed in loft hearts perhaps This is why he came to dislike this story in later years. Certainly, as Perry points out, the violent death of a child could not have been the reason why he felt ambivalent towards his story. Wailing well hell is just as gruesome in this regard.
If M.R. James is the best writer here, who is in the running for second place? The obvious candidate is EF Benson, or Fred as he was known two fellow club members. His story the other bed is for me I saw that example of his work if not his best story. It's a claustrophobic tale of a British gentlemen in Switzerland who is assigned the last available room at a hotel. Benson explores the idea of an act of violence leaving a psychic residue, a common theme well handled. For me the story leaves a slightly unpleasant taste, because of its dated assumptions about mental health and suicide.
Arthur Benson's 'Basel is by contrast the story that has, I think, grown in stature. It inverts a standard ghost story trope, whereby a hearty English Squire encounters a creative individual who is an outsider in a small rural community. Conventionally, it is the sensible chap who represents the forces of goodness and order, while the intellectual is disruptive and chaotic. Here the situation is reversed, as the eponymous composer finds his creative talents corrupted, and his personality gradually usurped, by an amoral and brutal force residing in his superficially pleasant lodgings.
This twist is perhaps a nod to Thomas Carlyle's accusation, that the English rural Gentry were Barbarians and philistines. It's notewoorthy that this story was not published until after Arthur's death when his brother Fred found it among his papers. The ghost stories published in his lifetime, by contrast, are far more conventional in outlook.
So, Arthur beats Fred by a narrow head. It must be said, though, that Parry could have chosen any number of very good EF Benson stories for this volume, while ‘Basil ’ is probably the only work by Arthur that can be described as first rate. Hugh Benson's inclusion, ‘Father Bianchi’s’ tale, is too slight to bear comparison with his brothers' efforts. But it does offer good background atmosphere in its description of rural Italy.
Among the other writers I found interesting is Maurice Baring. Once a celebrated author, Baring is little-known today. But his story ‘The Ikon’ is an interesting example of what’s been called Imperial Gothic. Its main character is one of those world-weary intellectuals who populate so many ghost stories, a collector all religious artifacts who does not take religion seriously. he makes a gruesome fate when he tries to mix and match the artwork of the title with those of other faiths.
One pleasure of a thematic collection like this is the discovery of now-obscure writers who, like Baring, are worth seeking out. Robert seems to have been a man of many talents, and might have achieved some literary fame. But he ‘set aside his pen’ to pursue his true vocation of archaeology. He is represented here by two very good poems. One describes the terrible vengeance wrought on a reprobate by the cats of Cambridge. The other is an excellent pastiche of Kipling.
Roger Corman's place in the history of cinema is assured by his prodigious output of low-budget genre films. He jumped on the horror ban...