Friday, 22 October 2021

Hallowe'en Movies - The Haunted Palace (1963)


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 bandwagon that was set rolling by Hammer in the late Fifties, and made a decent job of several Edgar Allan Poe tales. The best of these is arguably House of Usher (1960). Rather oddly at the end of this 'Poe Cycle' Corman turned his attention to the (then virtually unknown) H.P. Lovecraft. Taking a fairly free adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and retitled it Edgar Allan Poe's Haunted Palace - the credits include a reading of Poe's poem, which is sort of marginally relevant.

Hallowe'en Movies - [REC] (2007)


I'm not that keen on zombie movies, and the found footage genre has produced so much tat since Blair Witch. But this Spanish horror shocker proves that both concepts are not, in themselves, wonky when handled properly. The film has a good premise - a TV crew making a live show as they follow Barcelona's firefighters on a night call out. The situation in an apartment building quickly goes pear shaped as they encounter people seemingly infected by some sort of virus. The building is quarantined and the uninfected have to try to survive as the 'virus' spreads. As the story develops it becomes clear that this disease has a distinctly occult dimension. And the reporter finally discovers the cause. 

Like The Descent, [REC] relies on night-vision camera footage and other technical gimmicks to create tension and deliver shocks. The 'zombies' are effective and the cast do a fine job of being confused and terrified. Give this one a try if you don't mind your horror cranked up to a high level and aren't in need of a happy ending...

Thursday, 21 October 2021

Hallowe'en Movies - The Whisperer in Darkness (2011)


After winning well-deserved accolades for The Call of Cthulhu, the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society opted for a talkie in their ambitious adaptation of this sci-fi horror classic. For me, it's another triumph, with some fine performances, excellent direction, and a cracking score. The New England landscape is beautifully evoked, and the somewhat sedate early chapters of the story are livened up by the addition of Charles Fort. Fort pops along to Miskatonic campus to record a radio debate with sceptical Professor Wilmarth on the subject of extra-terrestrial visitors. As you can see from the trailer above, this Fort is a plump and cheerful charmer and Wilmarth gets the worst of the exchange. Then he is presented with some evidence of strange doings at the Akeley Farm... 

Events set in motion by a fairly cerebral debate lead to a climactic aerial chase, but not before we see some excellent visual effects courtesy of the Things from Yuggoth. The sinister technology - I won't include spoilers here, just in case - is suitably retro-futuristic. The overall look, courtesy of Mythoscope, captures much of the feel of classic Thirties horror movies. Matt Foyer is a credible Wilmarth, and the addition of new characters and a modified finale work well. All in all, a creative adaptation rather than a slavish homage, and all the better for it. 


Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Hallowe'en Movies - The Descent (2005)


Not a supernatural tale (so far as I can tell) but definitely a fine reworking of an ancient tradition - the descent into the underworld. A group of women go potholing, but dishonesty and recklessness lead them into an unexplored part of a vast, unexplored cave complex. Primitive art and animal bones suggest that the region is not unknown to human beings - or beings that were once human. 

The Descent is grim and grisly, with plenty of shocks and some intensely claustrophobic moments. It's not for the fainthearted. The use of night-vision tech has seldom been equalled and the 'live' footage aspect is very effective. Fear of the dark, fear of the unknown, fear of confined spaces - The Descent taps into visceral terrors that are at least in part programmed into our DNA. And it is far from rose-tinted in its view of how people react under unexpected and intense pressure. 

Probably not one for a family night in. 

Tuesday, 19 October 2021

Hallowe'en Movies - Trilogy of Terror (1975)


The ABC Movie of the Week produced many successful spin-off TV series - Kolchak, Starsky and Hutch, The Six Million Dollar Man. It also produced this remarkably cheesy but oddly compelling anthology movie based on three stories by the renowned Richard Matheson. It's available on YouTube, and is - interesting. 

If you want something that is by no means a classic but has great entertainment value, you could do worse. Much of the film's appeal depends on Karen Black, one of the big stars of  the Seventies. She stars in all three stories and actually has four roles, as in the second segment she plays twin sisters. And yes, it's the old 'one twin is uptight and prissy and the other is sexy and bonkers' trope. The first part is interesting in the MeToo era because of the college setting and the twist on sexual exploitation. But it's the final story, 'Prey', that has given Trilogy of Terror its reputation for absurdity. Suffice to say that, once seen, it's never forgotten. 

One to watch while not entirely sober...

Sacred and Profane by Peter Bell (Sarob Press 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

Hallowe'en Movies - Kwaidan (1964)


Guillermo del Toro likes it, and he's right! Kwaidan is arguably the best anthology horror movie, offering powerful performances and compelling stories. This is of course Serious Cinema, and that might be off-putting to some. Don't be deterred, however. Yes, the tales are told in a fairly leisurely way. But every one is cleverly done, and I guarantee that you will find at least one that stays with you and enriches your imagination. Here are epic battles, snow vampires, ghosts appearing in a bowl of tea, samurai who are unworthy of love on either side of the grave, monks who betray the trust of long-dead warlords, and a whole lot more beside. It is beautiful and strange, and I watch it around once a year simply to re-enter the world of Masako Kobayashi. 

King Satyr - a novel by Ron Weighell



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

Hallowe'en Movies - The Call of Cthulhu (2005)


As somebody remarked at some point, friends are better than critics. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society are the best pals any long-dead writer could have. Not only have they created a veritable horde of excellent radio dramas based on Lovecraft's tales, they've also produced not one but two feature films. Their first effort is a silent movie, an attempt to produce the kind of horror film that Hollywood might have made in the 1920s. It has its drawbacks, but these seem trivial compared to the compelling imagery and faithfulness to the plot. The original story offers many opportunities for creative effects and full-blooded acting, and the HPLHS team do a great job of getting the job done with panache. An instance of a fan film that's a lot better than some supposedly professional efforts, in fact.

Saturday, 16 October 2021

Hallowe'en Movies - The Changeling (1980)


George C. Scott in a stylish horror movie? Well, yes - this is an oddity, and all the odder because it seems to fall so squarely into the haunted house genre. In fact The Changeling delivers some good scares and interesting plot twists that leave you wondering what the finale will be. Scott, as a troubled composer, is gruffly believable, and the supporting cast is excellent. Despite the trailer's suggestion that this is kind of full-on stuff, much of the film is subtle and even understated. A ghost story for grown-ups who want a story that engages all the various bits of the brain, not just that primal stuff. 

Friday, 15 October 2021

Hallowe'en Movie - The Unnameable (1988)


One of a slew of Lovecraftian movies made during the straight to VHS era of horror, and all the better for it. A low-budget effort with a young cast venturing into a creepy old house to encounter a demonic entity that's just been waiting around for a few centuries to, well, do some horrific stuff. It's not unfaithful to the original story and plays the usual tricks with character names - Howard is the smart one who solves the mystery etc. Cheap and cheerful horror that works surprisingly well. Don't take it too seriously - just seriously enough to enjoy!

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Hallowe'en Movies - Ghost Story (1981)


Intriguing in a number of ways. Based on a Peter Straub novel. Fred Astaire in a leading role. A tale of a ghost with a very physical presence. And wonderfully atmospheric, with its small town setting and wintry landscapes. It's an odd film in many ways, definitely old-fashioned in some, but extremely absorbing and effective. Alice Krige is superb (and naked a fair bit of the time). It's a solid, stylish watch for any fan of traditional ghost stories.

Pariah & Other Stories

I've published only a handful of non-ST material down the years, and the most recent is this excellent collection by author and cover artist Sam Dawson. I don't think I launched it with quite as much fanfare as it deserves, so I'd like to offer you a taster of each story  usually the first few lines. As you will see, there are a lot of 'em, and the themes and ideas are immensely varied. Read these extracts, then ask yourself if you want to find out how the stories end. I think you will be keen to find out...

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

The Fatal Move & Other Stories (Swan River Press 2021)

The six stories in this slim volume comprise the entire fictional output of Conall Cearnach, the pen-name of F. W. O’Connell. In an excellent introduction, Reggie Chamberlain-King describes the author as 'a peculiar Protestant divine, linguist and Irish language scholar, oddball essayist, and early national broadcaster.' O'Connell was a prolific translator and his deep knowledge of various literary traditions informed his fiction, or at least some of it. 

All these stories were written during the traumatic period of Irish partition in 1921. As such they can be read both as entertaining weird tales and attempts to come to terms with contemporary anxieties in a creative way. Writing as therapy, if you like.

The title story harks back to the contes cruel of the 19th century, with its tale of two obsessive chess players who are rivals for the love of the same woman. One contrives a terrible variant on the royal game that will eliminate one of the rivals. 

'The Vengeance of the Dead' is a solid excursion into more conventional territory, with again the theme of vicious rivalry proving fatal. The story, for me, is badly marred by the author's attempt to reproduce an Indian accent on the page, which has a distinct whiff of Peter Sellers about it. The central idea is good, though, and the ending works nicely enough.

'The Fiend That Walks Behind' uses the same Coleridge quote that appears in 'Casting the Runes', and also features a learned gentleman who becomes obsessed with a supernatural pursuer. However, the treatment is very different to M.R. James tale, with more emphasis on psychology. #

Slightly more playful is 'The Homing Bone', in which an anatomist commits what he thinks of as a venal sin, but finds that some spirits are very jealous of their mortal remains. This one comes close to E.F. Benson in its depiction of a solitary individual who finds himself the focus of unwanted paranormal attention. 

'Professor Danvers' Disappearance' returns to the world eastern mysticism with the tale of an academic who immerses himself in Indian religion, then vanishes after receiving a death threat couched in supernatural terms. An alternative explanation is suggested, however, in a manner that reminded me of some of Chesterton's more restrained efforts. 

The final story, 'The Rejuvenation of Ivan Smithovich', is a short squib about a refugee for a Soviet-controlled England where Russian has replaced English. The light tone and slightly absurd premise - a Cockney driven bonkers by monkey glands - is balanced by a reference to British attempts to suppress the Irish language. What goes around, the author seems to suggest, might well come around. 

The book also contains some essays which show the breadth of Cearnachs's learning and his considerable wit. Overall, this slight book has much to recommend it to the aficionado of weird fiction, and illuminates some of the more obscure byways of Irish literature. 

Saturday, 18 September 2021

Sunday, 12 September 2021

Issue 47 is out in time for Hallowe'en

 


With luck I should have all copies mailed out to contributors and subscribers by the end of this month. 

Go here to purchase print on demand copies. Ezines to follow soon

Thursday, 2 September 2021

Static (2012) Dir. Todd Levin


I think I've praised this movie before, but it deserves to be more widely known. It happens to be on Prime at the moment so if you have that platform, give it a try.

Static is one of those films that cleverly subverts the horror genre in a stylish, ultimately moving way. A couple, played by Sarah Shahi and Milo Ventimiglia, live in a pleasant semi-rural home, but their lives are troubled. Author Jonathan Dade has just finished his latest book but his wife, Addie, is deeply depressed. It emerges that their small son died in an accident and blame, anger, and despair might well tear their marriage apart. 

This seems to be shaping up as a ghost story in which their child, Thomas, might play a role. It's listed as a horror movie, after all. But things do not proceed in a predictable way. Instead, Jonathan keeps hearing some kind of weird electronic interference - hence the title. Then, in the middle of the night, someone comes knocking at the door. The visitor turns out to be a scared young woman, Rachel (Sara Paxton) who says her car has a flat tire and she has been chased by men in gas masks. The situation is becomes even more fraught when Rachel reveals herself to be a fan of Jonathan, arousing Addie's suspicions. Jonathan cheated on her while she was pregnant. 

Rachel's behaviour becomes increasingly bizarre and provocative, but then the masked men appear and cut the power. Rachel is grabbed by one of the intruders and dragged away, screaming. The Dades are suddenly besieged by faceless strangers. When Jonathan tries to contact the police he can't get through, and mobiles don't work. The intruders start to move through the house while the couple retreat and try to work out what's happening and why. 

Suffice to say that, for a short movie (just 83 mins), this one manages to pack in a lot of panic and paranoia. Some reviewers didn't like, for reasons that will become obvious if you watch it. But no spoilers here. I think it offers the horror fan something different, the central performances are excellent, and it holds up well on rewatching.




Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Too Near the Dead by Helen Grant

 


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

Unstoppering a 17th-century 'witch bottle' at the Pitt Rivers Museum


h/t to Helen Kemp of A Ghostly Company for circulating the link provided by António Monteiro.

Back to Plan A...

 


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

Lonely Water (1973)

Quick update on ST 47

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

Afterimages (2014)



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

Yuletide cheer a bit early this year

The BBC has announced a new Ghost Story for Christmas! It's 'The Mezzotint', with Rory Kinnear heading an impressive cast.




'Filming wrapped recently in the South of England. The Mezzotint will air this Christmas on BBC Two and BBC iPlayer.'

Saturday, 31 July 2021

Ars Gratia Sanguis

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

Sir Michael Hordern's M.R. James Readings

Many years ago I bought one of the Argo double cassettes (remember those?) of... well, the title of this blog post will tell you what I bought. Now, after many years of bootlegs and general nonsense, there seems to be a legit downloadable version of the readings. They can be purchased at Audible here.


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:

'The Diary of Mr. Poynter'
'Casting the Runes'
'Oh Whistle...'
'Count Magnus'
'The Ash-Tree'
'Canon Alberic's Scrap-Book'
'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral'
'Lost Hearts'
'Rats'
'The Haunted Dolls' House'
'There Was a Man Dwelt...'
'The Mezzotint'

That's over six hours of fine listening! 

I'm not hanging around with this one...

 


Tuesday, 13 July 2021

The real 'Woman in Black'?

 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

Too Near The Dead Book Launch


Helen Grant is interviewed by Lalla Merlin about her new Gothic novel. 

Sadly, the swearing at the start when they didn't know I was listening has been censored. 

Wednesday, 30 June 2021

 


Frequent ST contributor and all-round literary lioness Helen Grant has a new book out! She has been kind enough to send me a signed copy and I began reading it this very afternoon. I've only read the first three (short) chapters but I can testify that it begins with a wonderful, nightmarish ordeal for her protagonist Fen. But what does Fen have to worry about? She's newly wealthy, has a wonderful fiancé, and has just moved into a picturesque house in rural Scotland. I look forward to finding out just how bad things are...

There is a virtual book launch on Facebook tomorrow (Thursday 1st July) at 7pm. Find out more here

Tuesday, 29 June 2021

FINDING YOURSELF IN THE DARK - Concluded

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

'No Passage Landward' by Steve Duffy


I've posted this before, but thought it was apt to put it out again. It gives a good flavour of Steve Duffy's new collection, and any deficiencies are down to my reading, not his writing. 

Thursday, 24 June 2021

Pariah & Other Stories

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. 



Fiery Portent

 


Monday, 21 June 2021

Kindred Spirit - a new book by Stephen Cashmore

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.

Publishing details

Sparsile Books, see sparsilebooks.com

Order from Waterstones, Foyles, Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble

FINDING YOURSELF IN THE DARK - CONTD (CONTD)

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

FINDING YOURSELF IN THE DARK - CONTD


We move on to April in Steve Duffy's new collection of month-by-month stories from Sarob. It's a chilly April, though, with no real harbingers of spring. 'The Villa Morozov' is set in Russia at the time of the Revolutionary War, when slaughter and disruption was widespread. In the eponymous house in the woods, it seems winter will never end. And the denizens of the villa go about the business of survival in their own distinctive way. This is a very short, chilling tale with a very effective 'monster', a being that endures despite, perhaps even because of, a general onslaught upon more orthodox traditions.

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

FINDING YOURSELF IN THE DARK - Steve Duffy




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

Yes, logo I say!

 

In case anyone is in any doubt as to what they're reading, this will keep them grounded. 

Though by 'grounded' I mean mildly amused by a flying skull with glowing eyes.

Logo, you say?

 


Yes! A logo for Supernatural Tales. It's taken a while, but here it is - a somewhat jaunty skull with a go-ahead attitude. Courtesy of Sam Dawson, I think it combines charm with evil and madness in roughly equal proportions.

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Something Big Is Coming...



Something Ominous


Something Strange



Something Dangerous


Stay tuned for further developments!

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

The Giant on the Hill

 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.

I always found it rather odd that people thought anyone in the 17th century could construct a huge landscape outline of a club-wielding man with a massive erection. I mean, if it was a jibe at Cromwell as the 'British Hercules', wouldn't that have invited Roundhead retribution? 

But the latest findings also raise questions. Material taken from the deepest layer (1m) yielded a date range of 700-1100AD which suggests the giant was first made by late Saxons.' After all, paganism had pretty much died out by the 10th cent, so why would the monks of nearby Cerne Abbas countenance the creation of a bloke with a big todger? Did they drunk one night and decide it was a good idea? 

Apart from the fact that chalk giants are fascinating and mysterious, the Cerne Abbas giant has direct linked to classic supernatural fiction. In 'An Evening's Entertainment', a folk horror tale by M..R. James, there is a reference to a chalk figure that could be the giant. Two rather dodgy characters arrive in a small English village. Bad things happen and the two are later judged to have 'worshipped the old man on the hill'.

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Ghosts of the Chit-Chat (Swan River Press 2020)

 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 Nunkie 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/Dennistoun could be taken as a portrait of the author, Mr Abney 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 Netherby' 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 Netherby’ 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 Carr Bosanquet 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.  

 

 

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