Monday 27 December 2021

The Mezzotint (BBC 2021)

Well, the verdict is in. I liked it. Some people didn't like it. But there it is, a ghost story for Christmas, helmed as per by Mark Gatiss, the Beeb's go-to guy for genre stuff with a touch of class. The I-hate-everything-Gatiss-does brigade has been out in force, denouncing his latest effort. But that's silly and futile, not least because if the internet had been around in the 70s Lawrence Gordon Clark would've got the same treatment. 

Indeed, when I compare 'The Mezzotint' adaptation with some of the classic Ghost Stories for Christmas of the Clark era, I see some similarities. I rewatched 'The Treasure of Abbot Thomas' last night and was struck by how much extra material writer John Bowman had added. What's more, the ending - quite definitely not found in the original story - was somewhat similar to Gatiss' take on 'The Mezzotint'. Then there's the implicit sexual involvement of the squire and the witch in 'The Ash Tree'. If Gatiss had done that, I shudder to think what the online reaction might have been. 

Anyway, the point is that I thought Rory Kinnear was a superb lead in this year's Christmas ghost story. I was struck by how much he has come to resemble his late father, an accomplished comic actor who could 'do straight' very well. Some have found fault with Gatiss 'tidying up' M.R. James' plot by having Gawdy still active and seeking to settle a final score. I didn't think it was heresy to give the tale an actual horror climax, because people expect it and it worked well. 

The drama had its faults, but I won't dwell on them. While it's not quite in the same league as 'A Warning to the Curious', few things are. It looked good, it was well-paced, it was well cast (mostly) and it had the undeniable feel of M.R. James' world, albeit the starker post-WW1 era rather than that of cosy 1890s Chit-Chat storytelling. 

Next year, 'Count Magnus'? Or will we, perchance, finally see some runes cast? One can but hope.

Saturday 25 December 2021

'The Clearance' by Paul M. Feeney

The penultimate story in Terror Tales of the Scottish Lowlands is set in the countryside north of |Glasgow. A man with a special talent goes to meet the local laird, who is having some supernatural problems. It turns out that the main character has a special power - he can not only see ghosts but assists them in 'moving on'. This talent is nicely handled by way of flashbacks, before the nitty-gritty issue of the haunting is tackled. 

I like a story that could go in a number of ways and still surprises you. This one (no spoilers) does not follow the conventional route of ghost seer or exorcist, but there is a definite sense of closure. The only other living character, Lumley, is a well-drawn example of an all-too-familiar British type, one of whom is currently ensconced in Downing Street. This is a solid horror tale, modern but with a definite tinge of Gothic.

Tuesday 21 December 2021

Typewriter (Netflix)

If you're looking for a different kind of ghost story over the Christmas season, you might try Typewriter, which I enjoyed a lot. Set in the Indian state of Goa, it has a lot of familiar ingredients. It's a five-parter that packs a lot into its regular-length TV episodes. Here are some pesky kids, complete with a dog, forming a ghost hunting club. Here is a young family moving into an old house where, it turns out, the wife's grandparents lived - and died in unusual circumstances. Sinister characters, one of them distinctly murderous, are watching the house and awaiting the Blood Moon. 

Monday 20 December 2021

Dead of Winter - 'Tis the Season to be Spooky!

It's a mini-anthology, and it's on your interwebs! 

Four spooky readings - four, count them! - by myself, Helen Grant, Lynda E. Rucker, and Sean Hogan. If you read Supernatural Tales, Helen and Lynda need no introduction. If you've seen the film The Devil's Business (which I reviewed here) you will be delighted to see its writer/director Sean here too. 


Sunday 19 December 2021

'A Christmas Carol' by Charles Dickens

Scrooge on a loop! 

This is nice. You can drop in on 'A Christmas Carol' at any time and listen to the familiar tale while enjoying a real fire on your videotronic screen. This is a good, old-school reading, with clear diction for us old folk. As often happens with familiar stories, listening to it read properly has brought home to me just how good it is. 

That Dickens bloke knew a thing or two. 

Friday 17 December 2021

'Birds of Prey' by S.J.I. Holliday

This story from Terror Tales of the Scottish Lowlands interweaves the terrible history of witch persecution with the modern domestic tyranny of domestic violence. It mentions a silver statue erected somewhere in the Borderns (I think it's the right one below), which commemorates those women - and quite a few men - who were executed for witchcraft. The book contains 'pardons, for people misunderstood'.

The main character, Dallis, is routinely assaulted by the thuggish Tommy, a familiar 'man's man'  type who is all too commonplace in our screwed-up culture. Toxic masculinity, official indifference, and self-blaming hamper Dallis' ability to get away or protect herself. But then she encounters a mysterious woman who gives her a business card that suggests a very different way to deal with the problem. 

A straightforward story of tables turned, and supernatural vengeance. The idea that witchcraft might be a real force in the world is of course familiar, but this is a neat twist on a well-worn idea. 

Sunday 12 December 2021

'Long Ago' - A Ghost Story for Christmas

'Herders' by William Meikle

 Our next story from Terror Tales of the Scottish Lowlands has all the right ingredients. An archaeologist working on a Roman site discovers some mysterious drawings. The images he finds are in fact reminiscent of the famous Dancing Men in the eponymous Sherlock Holmes adventure - but with an important difference. These stick figures always seem to be missing parts of their body. A limb here, a head there, it all adds up. 

Or rather, it doesn't, as attempts to decode the stick figures fail. Then a clever student makes a breakthrough that I will not drop here as a Great Big Spoiler. Suffice to say that our protagonist makes a classic blunder and delivers a talk that is well-received, but not quite as he expected. The conclusion is foreshadowed well and overall this is a satisfying tale of small-town horror.

We're approaching the end of the anthology in time for the festive season. Will we get a ghost story for Christmas? One can only wait and wonder.

Monday 6 December 2021

'Echoes from the Past' by Graham Smith

Another story from Terror Tales of the Scottish Lowlands, and one written in the present tense. This one has all the classic ingredients of the traditional ghost story. A woman is sleeping alone in an old house miles from anywhere. She hears sounds in the night - a baby laughing, where logically no baby can be. She checks the locked doors and windows, finds no evidence of an intruder. The setting is contemporary so there are security lights linked to motion sensors outside, and they have not been triggered. 

So begins a tale that follows a fairly predictable pattern.The main character is carrying the burden of a dark secret, and the baby's laughter offers a strong clue even before the truth is revealed. While she did no wrong, she cannot share this part of the past with her husband, a srong-minded man of the Borders. Noises persist and she calls the police, who act pretty much as cops always do in this kind of tale. Is the haunting - if that's what it is - purely psychological? 

This story, while up-to-date in many ways, reminded me of old-school TV shows that rang the changes on the ghost story.  An old folk belief is invoked, but then something very different is duscovered, quite literally in the woodwork. We are almost reassured that the mystery has been solved. But then comes another twist...

I can't say more because that would be too spoiler-y, but I suspect this one will divide readers. More from this running review very soon.

Sunday 5 December 2021

SAINT MAUD - A Film By Rose Glass (2019)


Imagine one of Alan Bennet's Talking Heads characters turned up to 11 and given a horror twist. Maud is a twenty-something trained nurse in Scarborough, and has recently moved into providing care for the elderly with a private agency. This follows a bad incident at a hospital that haunts her - the film opens with her cowering in a corner of a tiled room, her hands bloody, looking up at an insect crawling on the ceiling. Imagine following this superficially ordinary woman through a very convincingly acted breakdown as she becomes fixated on saving the soul of a former dancer/choreographer she is sent to care for. Imagine what we call insanity as something profound, complex, terrifying, even beautiful. 

Saint Maud is one of those horror films that is also a powerful character drama with a strong thriller element. Alan Bennet and Ruth Rendell put in a blender, perhaps, with a dash of Stephen King. Maud is superbly acted by Morfydd Clark as an isolated, confused, but often religious ecstatic young woman who we know quite early on could be dangerous. She is, after all, in a job where caring for the vulnerable is her job and she routinely injects drugs. 

Saturday 4 December 2021

Wednesday 1 December 2021

Dark Corners - Ghost in the Invisible Bikini: Review

I heartily recommend the Dark Corners YouTube channel for its vast array of movie reviews. As well as the bad ones (so many!) there's also some great stuff about good movies, esp. those of Val Lewton.

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...