Sunday, 31 January 2021

Crooked Houses - 'Your House, Any House, That House' by Rebecca Kuder

This anthology of haunted house stories from Egaeus Press begins with a flanking attack on the sub-genre. Rebecca Kuder's tale is that of a haunted house in a small town. People tell stories about what happened there. There was a fire, and a girl. A father tells the story to his son, but not to us, at least not directly. Instead Kuder offers a new take on the familiar, fragmenting the narrative into a series of short, oblique references, giving us the story by not telling us exactly what happened. But we can guess. There are some wonderful scenes, here, which recall the careful ambiguities of the original Modernists, Woolf in particular. 

Mrs. Raine, who always wore starched yellow blouses and used to tach math back when my mother was in school, said she knew the people who owned the house before the fire. Mrs. Raine said they were good people. But Mrs. Raine said it all so quietly and she was so faded and old that no one could hear her, or they just didn't listen.

This is typical of Kuder's approach, leaving us wondering just whose thoughts we are reading and how accurate anyone's account can be. It might not be too everyone's taste, because fans of what's loosely termed horror are accustomed to straight 'realistic' prose. But for me this is a powerful opener for the anthology and bodes well for what is to come. 


Saturday, 30 January 2021

Darroll Pardoe

Sad news - I just learned of the death of Darroll Pardoe, lifelong partner and collaborator of Ghosts & Scholars editor Ro Pardoe. I only met Darroll a few times, and as we are both rather shy I don't think I ever had a very long conversation with him. But I remember him as a man with a great sense of humour who wore his considerable learning lightly. 

Darroll was a scholar and a gentleman, and will be remembered with affection by all who had the good fortune to have met him. You can find out more about him at the link above and at Pigs Can Fly.



Friday, 29 January 2021

Crooked Houses - Running Review

 Over at Egaeus Press, the anthology Crooked Houses is on a second printing. This seems like a good opportunity to review a pdf sent to me by one of the writers in a rather starry line up. A lot of the authors here have been published in ST, which is always promising! Here is the blurb from EP to give you some idea of what to expect.

Alas! Is there a theme in supernatural fiction more prone to clichĂ© and cozy familiarity than the haunted house story?  
 
With this mammoth new anthology, Egaeus Press aims to reclaim that supremely primal tradition, not only from glossy movies, cartoons and television-era ghost hunters, but also from the Victorians, and the great, academic spook story authors of the 20th Century who, by their nature, sought to calibrate, anthropomorphise and provide justification for acts by forces which might hitherto have been considered beyond the scope of human comprehension. 
 
Crooked Houses takes its cue from this earlier age. Though many of the stories presented are set in the modern world, the forces which pervade are primeval, unquantifiable; the stuff of folk-tales, family curses and collective nightmares. 
 
These houses have very deep roots. These houses have teeth.



Thursday, 28 January 2021

THE LAMPPOST HUGGERS - Review

 

There's been much debate over whether our attention spans are getting shorter. Maybe they are, but if so they've been shrinking for a long time. Consider the difference between the relative brevity of a ghost story from - say - the 1930 and one written in the 1870s. The rise of mass education, print journalism, and later cinema and broadcast entertainment all changed our tastes and expectations. But it's fair to say that flash fiction - the publication of very short stories online - is something new. Without the internet we wouldn't have it. And, for my money, it's a good thing. 

Christopher Stanley's debut collection of flash fiction shows how the genre straddles the nebulous territory between the traditional short story and free verse. If a story is extremely short, every word must count. And they do, by and large. As each story takes only a couple of minutes to read the effect is rather like a series of blackly comic sketches, with the usual proviso about hits and misses. But every story is well-written, and I suspect each reader will have their own favourites. 

Friday, 22 January 2021

Thursday, 21 January 2021

ILL MET BY DARKNESS by Paul Finch - Review Part 4.

The final novella in this collection from Sarob Press is 'Spirit of the Season', which 'explores the idea of old Christmas, strange ritual, ancient powers and age-old winter terrors'. It certainly does. 

The story begins with a childhood recollection of a rather creepy Christmas decoration. Then we move up to date with a husband and wife team planning the next in a series of books about folklore. The husband, a folklorist, has discovered what he thinks may be the first reference in English to Father Christmas - originally called 'Old Christmas'. He suspects that the familiar character has odd, dark origins and invites a medium to a remote, half-renovated castle where a strange manifestation allegedly took place in the reign of Henry V. 

The medium - one inevitably thinks of Margaret Rutherford - is nervous and wonders if this is a standard haunting or something more peculiar. A foray into the cellars reveals that there are indeed some unburied secrets. Psychic powers are deployed and a very effective scene turns a moderately-paced ghost story into a frenetic chase, with the forces of darkness in full pursuit. At the end of the story the main character finds what he was looking for - in a way. 



The story provides a satisfying ending to an extremely enjoyable book. As always, the action sequence is excellent and the scholarly foundations of the tale well laid. All in all, Ill Met By Darkness is just what the avid reader of spooky tales needs during this long, lockdown winter. 

Monday, 18 January 2021

An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Aungier Street | J. Sheridan ...

ILL MET BY DARKNESS by Paul Finch: Review Part 3.

Here we are with the third of four novellas, and we're in the folk horror country. Anyone who knows the sub-genre will recognise the signs early on. Rural England - Lancashire, to be precise. A couple of characters who've never been in this part of the world before. A strange, hand-painted road sign. A crucial date - in this case, November 5th. The scene is set. 

'The Hell Wain' sees two London gangsters arriving in a small town to seek out and retrieve - by brute force - an informer living under a witness protection. The have been tipped off that the small-time grass is working in a bookshop in a nowhere kind of place called Hackenthorpe. Back in the 'burning times' of Bloody, a terrible thing happened there. The home-made road sign reading No Popery furnishes one clue, a burned out church another.

The hard men - one old hand and the impetuous son of the big boss - soon find that the town is a place that has known extreme violence of its own. As the plot unfolds, the initially confident hit man, Lassiter, becomes ever more nervous as he realises Bonfire Night is not just an excuse for rocket-related idiocy. Something much more sinister is going on. The mysterious Bonfire Boys are out, pushing a blazing cart called the Hell Wain. The exposition  is very well-done, rooting the story firmly in the ferocious intolerance of the Counter Reformation era.

This another cracking tale, and I'm wondering if the author had in mind a portmanteau horror film when he wrote this collection for Sarob Press. Certainly the feel of each tale (so far) is very cinematic - I wish I could write action sequences half as well as Paul Finch. The story leaves an aftertaste of gunpowder, sweat, and blood. And, as before, there's a sense of authenticity about the details. As a former police officer, Finch knows the ways of gangland far better than most people who write about crime.




Sunday, 17 January 2021

ILL MET BY DARKNESS by Paul Finch - Review Part 2.

The second story in this collection from Sarob Press, 'Down to a Sunless Sea', plays with genre by combining two popular ideas. Firstly, a mysterious man with something on his mind offers to sell a priceless artefact to a museum. But when the representative of the museum presses the seller for more information, the story that emerges is one of deception, organized crime, and underwater adventure. And there's also a very impressive monster. 

The story centres on the ancient myth of Europa, the queen abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull, because that's how he rolled. A couple of British ex-Paratroopers find themselves seduced by naughty ladies into going on a dangerous dive off a Greek island to plunder an ancient site. It transpires that not only was Europa a very real person, but also that a guardian was set over her tomb - a guardian that was still very active after thousands of years.

The story is inventive, full of convincing detail, and has some excellent action scenes. The final chase is excellent, and I was left guessing as to the identity of the monster until very near the end. There's a James Bond-ish feel to it that is refreshingly different from fusty academics poking around old churches or college libraries. And the story ends with a very satisfying bang.

So, that's another winner from Paul Finch. Next, according to the blurb, is something that looks like folk horror:

“The Hell Wain” takes us to a sleepy Lancashire village on Guy Fawkes Night, and introduces the horrific tradition of ‘The Bonfire Boys’.



Saturday, 16 January 2021

ILL MET BY DARKNESS by Paul Finch - Review Part 1.

A new book from Sarob Press! Actually it's a book that was published in December but I just got around to starting it, so apologies for the delay. And here's the cover...





Is it me or is there a distinct Man-Size in Marble feel about that image? Anyway, it's a cracking cover by Paul Lowe. 

The contents consist of four long short stories or novella, if you like, and all previously unpublished. The first, which I read last night in bed, is 'Snicker-Snack'. Lewis Carroll fans with recognise the term at once - it's from 'Jabberwocky', the poem read by Alice during her looking glass adventures. The story's premise is clever and compelling - a British comic book artists whose work was so disturbing that it his career was ruined. But not before his publisher, glimpsing the artist's conception of the Jabberwock, was sent stark raving mad. 

The story concerns Gilpin, a former book-hunter who has fallen into the clutches of a dodgy character. Gilpin is forced to approach the artist's elderly sister to try and get the fabled Jabberwock picture. He succeeds, but we know - thanks to a very careful accumulation of detail - that he will not profit. The story is one of blackmail, shame, and twisted imaginations. The flaw in Gilpin is the same at that of Carroll/Dodgson, but - as the author notes - the author was never punished. Gilpin is not so lucky. 

I enjoyed this story for its steady accumulation of detail, Finch's London reminds me of Ruth Rendell's. It's a city not of historic landmarks and dynamic go-getters, but of odd little byways and shabby, forgotten streets. Strange things happen, violence is never far away, and neighbours have more sense than to open their doors when mayhem occurs nearby. 

I'm looking forward to the second story. Here is the teaser from the flyleaf:

“Down to a Sunless Sea” features a weird Cretan objet d’art, an archaeological find, a legendary queen and a fiend of the Ancient World.

Wednesday, 13 January 2021

THE VIGIL - Review


This was a surprise - relatively low-budget horror movie that gets it right. This is a tale of supernatural evil, and the way it intersects with the very human evil we see every day, and learn about from the study of history. Suffice to say, I was spooked.

The premise is simple. In modern New York, Yakov (Dave Davis) is a young man who has suffered mental illness and is part of a support group. He is a former Hassidic Jew (please note, much of the dialogue is in Yiddish), and has left the strict Orthodox world for a confusing, bright, and often scary world beyond. We first see him admitting to struggling to earn a living, and having problems talking to girls. He is not savvy with his new mobile phone, which becomes significant later on.

Saturday, 9 January 2021

The Death Spancel and Others - Running Review, Part 3

I have to admit that lockdown has not done me much good when it comes to reading. I have struggled to focus on books, just as I've found it difficult to commit to TV series or films. At the moment I feel weary and despairing, but I must finish this review of an excellent book. So, here goes.

The last two stories in this Katherine Tynan collection are typically imaginative. 'The Picture on the Wall' appears, at first, to be one of those haunted portrait tales, as a young man goes to the north of England to meet the rather grim family of his fiancée. But the portrait turns out to be something rather different - a two-faced work of art that reveals a terrible family history. In marked contrast is 'The Fields of My Childhood', prose-poem reminiscence. Tynan could offer healthy sentiment and grim plot twists with equal aplomb.

The collection also includes three non-fiction pieces, two of them about Tynan. One is 'Sweet Singer from Over the Sea', in which a reporter from the Sketch visits the writer. This dates from 1893 and underlines how well-known and popular she was during that Celtic Twilight era. The second piece, from 1903, is entitled 'Ghost Story of a Novelist' and features an intriguing twist on the idea of a double or spectre of the living. 

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Fritz Leiber - "Monsters And Monster Lovers"


A rare chance to hear one of the greats of weird fiction talking about the genre. and he is very entertaining. What a voice!

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 ban...