Friday 29 October 2021

Terror Tales of the Scottish Lowlands - Running Review

A new paperback (and ebook) from Telos brings us fourteen tales set in a part of the world I know well, as I live not far south of the border. Editor Paul Finch has cemented his reputation as an assured and inspiring creator of regional anthologies. As well as the stories he offers a series of non-fiction items on various legends and real-life horrors, so I'm reading them one at a time too. The first is 'Bastions of Dread', which looks at some bloody shenanigans that took place at lowland castles. 

It's nice to see some familiar names from ST here. Paul Finch himself, of course, plus Reggie Oliver, Tracy Fahey, and Steve Duffy. But most of the contributors are unfamiliar to me. First up is 'The Moss-Trooper' by M.W. Craven, set in a pub at Gretna, right on the border. Gretna is of course famed for eloping couples being married by the village blacksmith. But the tale told here is about as grim as it gets, a reminder of just how low humanity can sink in times of political and religious upheaval. There's a nice twist that explains just why the pub seems so smoky, and the story sets a decent standard. 

Next up, Steve Duffy with a tale of imps...

Wednesday 27 October 2021

Hallowe'en Movies - The Creeping Flesh (1973)

Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star in a non-Hammer horror film about a huge monster that is the source of primal evil. Columbia pictures produced this mini-classic, which was directed by veteran British actor Freddie Francis. It's a bonkers story by any standard, with Cushing as the idealistic but careless boffin who unearths a giant skeleton in the East Indies. This being, the natives say, should not have been unearthed because it is very, very evil indeed... So of course he brings it back to his English country home for further analysis. It turns out that the creature can be restored to full fleshy awfulness by simply adding water - it's dehydrated evil! Cushing discovers this by starting to clean a finger then lopping it off - a move that has unfortunately consequences later.

 Meanwhile Lee, as Cushing's nasty brother, is keen to get the credit for the discovery himself and finds this easier to achieve as things get rather weird. Lorna Heilbron co-stars as Cushing's daughter, who is saved from one of those Victorian diseases by an injection of evil juice. Having recovered her physical health she flees to London and turns into a sex-crazed murderer.

I could go on, but it's just mad stuff and played looks very like a decent (if not first rate) Hammer effort. Worth seeking out for the performances by old pals Cushing and Lee, plus some of the ideas - implicit or otherwise - lurking in a lurid Gothic plot. 

Sunday 24 October 2021

Hallowe'en Movies (of the Week)

On YouTube you can find a lot of old ABC Movies of the Week, dating from the early Seventies. I've already mentioned Trilogy of Terror, but there's also The Cat Creature (1973), scripted by none other than the great Robert Block of Psycho fame. Bloch also wrote for The Twilight Zone and early Star Trek, so he had good TV chops. What's more, The Cat Creature is clearly a love letter to all those classic Hollywood movies in the Egyptian Gothic school, complete with a mummy, an amulet, and a cat goddess cult. 

Hallowe'en Movies - I Walked With a Zombie (1943)

 Available on the BBC iPlayer if you can access it, this wartime tale of strange forces and stifled passions in a Caribbean island has worn well. 

Canadian nurse Betsy (Frances Dee - her character has no surname) leaves a chilly Toronto to care for the wife of British sugar planter Tom Holland (Paul Conway). She finds that Jessica Holland (Christine Gordon) is in a kind of trance, and Holland's boozy American half-brother Wesley Rand blames Tom for this. A love triangle and voodoo shenanigans emerge in parallel as Betsy falls for Tom. There's some interesting stuff about the medical science of the day, including an attempt to cure Jessica with shock treatment involving of a diabetic coma. But in the end, it is the drums in the night that prevail...

Any film of this period with a large cast of black extras involved in the occult might be expected to have a lot of cringe-making moments. But in fact the script by Curt Siodmak and Ardel Wray is almost 'woke' in its sympathy for the plight of the slave-descended islanders. Voodoo is not mocked or shown as inherently evil. The white characters are intelligent enough to grasp that people need beliefs and traditions, especially when they are up against terrible hardship. 

With Val Lewton producing and Jacques Tourneur in the director's chair, it's not surprising that IWWaZ is a lot classier than its premise (or wartime budget) might imply. As in Cat People and Night of the Demon, the use of light and shadow is superb, and the pacing is excellent. At just over an hour, this is really a short feature that punches far above its weight. It's also interesting to note that, while the men make a big fuss about everything and are constantly point scoring, it's actually some assertive women - Betsy, Alma the servant, and Mrs. Rand - who make a real difference. 

I was going to include the original trailer but it is so plonkingly at odds with this subtle, intelligent film that I decided against it.

Byland Abbey Ghost Stories

In 1922 M.R. James published a collection of a dozen 'true' medieval ghost stories collected by Cistercian monks at a Yorkshire Abbey. You can read them online in translation here.

'What I write is a great marvel. It is said that a certain woman laid hold of a ghost and carried him on her back into a certain house in presence of some men, one of whom reported that he saw the hands of the woman sink deeply into the flesh of the ghost as though the flesh were rotten and not solid but phantom flesh.'

Where the Red Baron failed...


h/t Steve Duffy

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.

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...