Sunday, 18 September 2022
Friday, 16 September 2022
S.M. Cashmore is a proofreader, editor and writer based in Ayr on the west coast of Scotland. His novel Kindred Spirit was published in 2019, and a second book is slated to come out late in 2023. His short stories have been reproduced in various places, but he is always delighted to place one with Supernatural Tales, especially in this historic fiftieth issue. You can track him down at stephencashmore.com or cashmoreeditorial.com.
Chloe N. Clark is the author of Collective Gravities, Escaping the Body, and more. Her short story collection, Patterns of Orbit, is forthcoming in 2023. When not writing or working, she has amassed an impressive collection of opinions about Oreos. Follow her on Twitter @PintsNCupcakes
Paul Crosby is a software developer with a background in high energy physics. His work encompasses the fantastical and uncanny, and the consequences of terrible deeds. He also writes fiction. He currently lives in Reading.
Sam Dawson is a journalist. Published by Supernatural Tales, his debut collection, Pariah & Other Stories, is available from lulu.com
Steve Duffy's most recent collection, Finding Yourself In The Dark, was published by Sarob Press in 2021; he's currently at work on the next. This story was inspired in equal measure by Paul Fussell's The Great War And Modern Memory and PJ Harvey's "Let England Shake".
Helen Grant has a passion for the Gothic and for ghost stories. Joyce Carol Oates has described her as "a brilliant chronicler of the uncanny as only those who dwell in places of dripping, graylit beauty can be". A lifelong fan of the ghost story writer M. R. James, Grant has spoken at two M. R. James conferences and appeared at the Dublin Ghost Story Festival. She lives in Perthshire with her family, and when not writing, she likes to explore abandoned country houses and swim in freezing lochs. Her novels include Ghost (2018) and Too Near the Dead (2021).
Lynda E. Rucker has sold dozens of short stories to various magazines and anthologies including Best New Horror, The Best Horror of the Year, The Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror, Black Static, Nightmare, F&SF, Postscripts, Supernatural Tales and Shadows and Tall Trees. She has had a short play produced as part of an anthology of horror plays on London's West End, has collaborated on a short horror comic, writes a regular column on horror for Black Static, and won the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Short Story in 2015. Two collections of her short fiction have been published, The Moon Will Look Strange and You'll Know When You Get There, and she edited the anthology Uncertainties III for Swan River Press.
Wednesday, 7 September 2022
Monday, 22 August 2022
|Cover art by Paul Lowe|
A new collection of ghost stories by a disciple of M.R. James (and others) is always of interest. C.E. Ward, a long-time contributor to Ro Pardoe's Ghosts & Scholars, is an old hand at recreating the distinctive atmosphere of those classic tales. Here are garrulous countrymen, curious scholars, interesting settings, and strange phenomena. Four of the eight tales collected here are new. The others have appeared in G&S, The Silent Companion, or in The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows.
One of Ward's fields of interest is military history, and this informs the first story, 'Autumn Harvest'. The deceptively serene title does not prepare the reader for the tale of violence and maleficia stemming from a clash between a Royalist squire and Parliamentary forces in the Civil War era. There are parallels with 'Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance'. Here, too, we find a young gent who unexpectedly inherits a country house with a strange secret lurking in the gardens. There are a number of nice Jamesian touches as the story behind a mysterious apple tree that fruits successfully in an otherwise dead orchard unfolds.
Monday, 8 August 2022
Charles Williams (1886-1945) was a prolific and versatile writer and a member of the Inklings, the Oxford academic society that included Tolkien and Lewis. Unlike those two authors, however, Williams' work has never reached a very wide audience. He has won many admirers (among them the poet W.H. Auden), but his sophisticated religious and philosophical speculation is not for everyone. I confess I have always found him difficult. Put another way, I've finished two of his books and understood one of them. Possibly.
So it was with some trepidation that I approached this volume from Sarob, as it is a homage to Williams by John Howard and Mark Valentine. Both authors tackle aspects of Williams' work, which is informed by Christian ideas, often in surprising ways. The two novellas are very different, both in tone and content. Both are well-crafted, interesting, and arguably more accessible than Williams' own books.
John Howard's 'All the Times of the City' reminded me of All Hallows' Eve, Williams' last finished novel. That book is set in London in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, and concerns the destiny of two souls. In his story, Howard tells the story of two Londons, the modern city - complete with the Shard etc - and the bomb-damaged city of late1945. There is, however, a science fictional twist. The modern London is not the one we know. We know this because St. Paul's is described as an essentially medieval building that was repaired, not replaced, after the Great Fire of 1666.
Howard does a good job of world-building, offering us a corrupt, populist regime in his alternate Britain. (Where could have got that notion?) He also successfully evokes post-war London in 'our' history, where St. Paul's has its familiar dome, partly wrecked by the Luftwaffe but still standing. In 1945 the plot revolves around the work of a recently deceased writer, clearly a Williams figure, who somehow has the power to shift history onto the right track. But can this be achieved? The theme is essentially one of love and sacrifice, as the interplay of characters reveals the flaws and virtues of society, as embodied in the city.
Mark Valentine's novella 'Armed for a Day of Glory' is altogether lighter in tone but equally resonant in its treatment of paranormal themes. The setting is not specified but some references make it clear we are between the wars, in an era when magazine publishing still flourished. Letters to a journal entitled The Barograph concerning strange weather conditions lead the protagonist on a long and involving quest to uncover a conspiracy. It seems the ancient 'Talismans of Britain' are in danger, with a plan afoot to somehow disfigure the spiritual essence of the nation.
Sunday, 17 July 2022
Friday, 15 July 2022
A new horror magazine? Surely not. But yes, here it is! And what a humdinger it is. Looking very like an old-style pulp with a nicely garish cover, but much bigger. This is a big premier issue, and offers an impressive array of fiction plus feature items.
Sunday, 10 July 2022
Saturday, 9 July 2022
Tuesday, 28 June 2022
As I write, a gang of chancers, bigots, and giftless clowns known collectively as the British government is endangering peace in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it's just a coincidence that I've come to the end of this anthology of strange stories from 'Norn Iron'. Certainly the last story in the book does not, on the fact of it, treat of Troubles, sectarians, the strange evolution of nations. Instead, its subject is the sea and the shore, a theme that never goes out of style for islanders, be they British or Irish.
A man takes his child to the beach to see stranded whales in a narrative that is truly dream-like. There is more than a hint of magic realism in Emma Devlin's tale. (There's more about Devlin here.) But at its heart is a terrorist bombing and the way the King of the title found the sound of the sea soothing, a way of dealing with the noises in his head by hearing the eternal noise of great waters.
There are beautiful passages, here, but the central image is that of the beached whales. Efforts to save the animals seem futile, as the sea itself seems to be retreating, rejecting the land and implicitly the human world. But, at the very end, in the last sentence of the book, there is a hint of hope. It is as much as can be expected, reasonably or otherwise.
I don't think my running review has done justice to this book. Post-Covid my brain is not as sharp as I would like. I recommend that you seek out The Black Dreams and see for yourself. Dream for yourself, too. Nobody else can do it for you. But, it seems, they can come close.
The picture above is from a book of photographs of a British army training area in Germany. Red Land, Blue Land refers to the standard NATO colours given to friendly and enemy units. In this case, however, the squaddies were sent into the zone to train them for operations in the UK during the Troubles.
The story concerns a woman in the Northern Irish town of Redlands who is haunted by the barking of a phantom dog. The mental stress this causes her gradually accumulates, alongside her quest for the truth about the mysterious creature. Eventually, her quest leads her to the book, with its grotesque images of civilians and terrorists posed around a replica of her neighborhood. Dummies stand at the bar inside the nameless pub, a hooded rifleman crouches behind a bin. And a dog strains at its leash, barking endlessly.
There is more than a hint of what might be termed unsympathetic magic, here. There's a sense that a fake community created to simulate a low-intensity war zone has impacted the real place it was modelled on. History can never be truly past if people are forced to live in its detritus. The story also, all too pertinently, contains a concise depiction of the collapsing NHS.
I was not surprised to find out that the author is a film director as well as a writer, and I will be seeking out her work. You can find more about her here.
Sunday, 26 June 2022
The antepenultimate story in this anthology of Strange Stories from Northern Ireland concerns the dangers of ignorance. A man recalls how, as a youth, he was riding his bike along country roads when he was subject to a strange interrogation. It becomes clear that he is not merely being asked a few random questions by the mysterious man in the mud-caked Fiat. The pub quiz-style posers are something far worse.
This short story packs a lot in. The English accent of the quizmaster (the other one doesn't talk and is in fact barely glimpsed). The way in which the commonplace and trivial becomes a life-or-death situation. The impossibility of appealing to any meaningful and trustworthy authority when confronted with extreme violence. The general sense that nothing can be resolved or clarified. A story about the Troubles, then, but also one that might become more generally relevant in a world where traditional certainties are being revealed as neither certain nor particularly traditional for most of our species.
So, another story that offers a dream-like experience but one that has the brutal immediacy of some nightmares. It's also admirable for its cool, almost detached tone.
Tuesday, 21 June 2022
Thursday, 16 June 2022
Subtitled 'Extracts from an Oral History', this story from Northern Ireland deals with identity and the ancient, yet always somehow fresh, theme of the double. Two towns in the province sit side by side, two communities separate but in theory equal. In both, a girl goes missing at the same time - one Catholic, one Protestant. In both towns searches are undertaken, theories formulated, gossip flourishes, and theories abound. The story is told in fragments, as different people - some intimately involved, others on the margins - give their accounts.
This might almost be a magic realist tale. It transpires that the posters supposedly show two missing girls, but they are the same girl. Eventually, a body is found. Which girl is it? The implication (I think) is that on top of the terrible tragedy, a crime or accident that might happen in any town, anywhere, is an extra layer of suffering caused by the terrible evasions and ambiguities of sectarian culture. Time passes and the vanishing(s) gradually become part of history and folklore.
As editor of this anthology Reggie Chamberlain-King offers this in his introduction. 'Really, these are dream stories... Dream stories, such as the dreamers tell themselves as they march the streets of their imagination.' This story has a dream-like quality, one that could haunt a restless night.
Sunday, 12 June 2022
Well, we finally got there. Nine stories into an anthology of weird fiction from Northern Ireland and we confront the Troubles almost head-on. Almost. 'Now and Then Some Washes Up' is a tale of folklore in the making, linked to the terrorism that flourished on both sides following the failed suppression of the NI civil rights movement.
At first, though, the story is anything but political. Indeed, it could be argued that it actually demonstrates how anything resembling politics, in the sense of rational debate and attempts to achieve progress (yes, I know, but you get the idea) is rendered impossible by the mindset of terrorism. It permeates everything while going largely unmentioned and thus removes normal political discourse from everyday life. But let's consider the plot.
It's actually the life story of a fairly ordinary, decent bloke. Peter goes to university in Belfast, gets a degree, does a teaching diploma, and has a long and fairly successful career in education. He marries Mary, a fellow student, and they have a son. When he retires they decide to leave the city and buy a new-build house by a lake. They have their own little private stretch of water, as they see it, and Mary is taken with the idea of skinny dipping. But Peter is not so sure about the lake. He is never quite certain that they are alone and unobserved.
Eventually a rusty box washes up. It contains relics of The Troubles. More revelations follow, as a friendly local explains why nobody from the village swims in the lake. It is, perhaps, haunted. Someone who got in too deep with paramilitaries ended up even deeper in a more literal sense. It is a gentle story which does not buttonhole the reader, merely invites them to look and ponder. This is how life is, for many. Like the old lady and her great-nephew who must revisit the lake to leave flowers and retrieve relics of violence, Peter and Mary are part of a pattern that, while faded, is still there to be seen, and felt.
So, another good story from this impressive anthology. I'll continue this running review next week.
Saturday, 11 June 2022
Young and impoverished Ada is invited by estranged cousin Umberto to come to the Villa Artemisia to help catalogue the contents for sale. Ada has been cut out of her uncle's will. Umberto feels guilty and wants to share this part of his inheritance. However, when she arrives at the villa (traipsing through the woods lugging her suitcase) she finds Dante, the less-than-jolly caretaker whose tinted sunglasses more than hint at some deception. Nothing daunted, Ada gets out her notebook and starts listing contents. The villa is one of the stars of the movie, here, with its faded grandeur and murky interiors.
Soon Ada unearths a mysterious bas relief that has a slightly Lovecraftian feel about it. That night she dreams of a mysterious woman performing a mysterious dance while wearing a sinister cat-like mask. (There is a real cat in the film, named Milli, who does some excellent lurking about.) Ada wakes to find a mysterious bruise on her arm, and feeling weak and light-headed. We know something occurred in the night, but what? Eventually, we get the full Monty of dodgy archaeology, hell dimensions, murderous madwomen, and a fair amount of blood that isn't kept where it should be.
The film is arguably a little too slow to get started and, towards the end, shoehorns in too much exposition. But these are minor flaws in a production that is always absorbing and frequently delightful. Part of the pleasure comes from the limitations of location filming and having a very small cast (with the writers/directors doubling as actors in some cases). It gives the whole thing the feel of a 70s BBC Ghost Story for Christmas. You know there will not be big-budget effects so you wait to see what can be achieved with lighting, soundtrack (which is very good), and of course, that oft-neglected thing called the plot.
As you can see from the pic of Ada above, the setting is period but timeless - almost certainly 20th century but there doesn't seem to be a landline phone and we see no cars or trains. This gives the film a suitably weird, dreamlike feel, as Ada is drawn deeper into the mystery of the house and eventually uncovers a fairly mad conspiracy.
Currently streaming on Amazon Prime, Custodes is unlikely to be considered a classic like, say, Carnival of Souls. But it shares such films enthusiasm for the genre and is a perfectly good way to spend 90 minutes of an evening.
Thursday, 9 June 2022
Wednesday, 8 June 2022
A collection from Northern Ireland is going to mention a certain issue, as sure as night follows day. We're a good way into The Black Dreams, and finally the Troubles arrive. But not in any conventional way. No, instead 'The Tempering' is a tale of the terrorism that a man practices upon his family after what may be a near-death experience. It's a tale of cruelty in which a child plots vengeance upon their father, only to have circumstances solve the problem of domestic abuse in an unexpected yet very credible way.
'I tried not to hate him when he taught us one lesson after another, like how we must wear woollen tights to hide the bruises he had made bloom on our legs.'
Michelle Gallen's prose is passionate and efficient. Anyone who has experienced the kind of tyranny she describes will recognise the gamut of feelings a tormented child must run. It's not an easy story to read, but it is a good one by any standard.
Sunday, 5 June 2022
My notion that this anthology from Northern Ireland tends to shun the city for the (often illusory) simplicity and beauty of nature is sort of born out by the next story. Here, however, nature has come back with a vengeance. Great swathes of new and mysterious growth called plantations (a very charged word in Irish history) have appeared and with this incursion of greenery came something else. A tribe of non-human entities referred to as 'the other fellers' and 'the kindly folk' have whisked away half the population. The whole world may be affected, but who knows? Modern tech has failed. People are on their own as society degenerates into frightened, isolated communities defended by local militias.
The story bears a passing resemblance to The Road or The Mist, in that it's a tale of a father desperately trying to protect his son as they embark upon a perilous journey. The protagonist's wife has been taken by one of the strange creatures - a huge, terrifying entity that seems to defy normal human perception. It seems that the father's quest is futile, suicidal even, but he has no choice. Dreams draw him on, while the last vestiges of society fester and molder around him.
This is borderline fantasy/horror/sf. The story is a fragmentary account of a world that's disintegrated, and some might be disappointed that nothing is explained, only described. However, given the tale's provenance, I think that is fair enough. Knowing why something destroys your community, wounds your family, does not restore one or heal the other.
Thursday, 2 June 2022
A familiar name in this anthology of tales from Northern Ireland - familiar because for many years I was a reader of the sf magazine Interzone. 'Bird. Spirit. Land.' begins with a quote from the late Robert Holdstock, which puts down a marker, in a way. I was expecting something 'Holdstockian', and I was not disappointed.
The story concerns Ria, a carer for Mrs Fogel, an elderly, disabled artist who avian-themed pictures are fashionable and correspondingly expensive. 'Ria had no opinions on Tilda Swinton, but she appreciated Nicolas Cage in an ironic way, and was curious as to what he saw in these wall-filling canvases of purples, blacks, silver and diamonds.
As the artist's death approaches Ria has a series of uncanny experiences that border on the mystical - and unpleasant. All are bird-themed. Mrs Fogel claims her paintings depict 'Bird Spirit Land', a strange realm of chaos and life. Starlings, in particular, are imbued with this quasi-magical power she draws upon. Ria sees a huge murmuration of starlings moving over the town like a single, vast entity.
Not long after, she steals one of the paintings as a hedge against poverty. This seals her fate, in the manner of an old-school horror story. But McDonald rings the changes with cool deftness so that Ria's fate seems not only inevitable but also somehow just. A cruel tale, perhaps, but no crueler than the average magpie. And just as clever.
Monday, 30 May 2022
On to the fifth story in this anthology of fiction from Northern Ireland, and a trend may be emerging. People keep ending up in the countryside, closer to nature, away from the city. That's not necessarily a good thing, of course. For every bluebell, there is at least one malign spirit in those woods. But it may indicate (I'm no expert) a general sense that urban life in NI is something people in general dream of escaping from, to a greater extent even than in England.
Or I may be reading far too much into all this.
Jan Carson's story is certainly not one of pastoral escapism. But it is about a rural tradition, one of the oldest and most natural, yet also one that is deeply disturbing. A man drives out to the woods with his wife and their two small children. She is ill. She does not have very long. The wasting disease so common and so feared has left her so light he can easily carry her to the leaving place. Then he returns to the car, and finds he has made a mistake.
"In the spring, a young Goth's fancy lightly turns to climbing trees."
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, never scribbled a truer line. As the weather in the northern hemisphere becomes less chilly, black-clad devotees of all things shadowy and supernatural start eying likely boughs. You can't stop them. You might as well enjoy their antics. Go to https://gothsuptrees.net and celebrate the tendency of well-meaning people with inappropriate footwear to try and emulate squirrels.
Sunday, 29 May 2022
The fourth story in this anthology from Northern Ireland is - like the previous tale - set in the countryside. There the resemblance ends, however. 'A Loss' begins with the death of the narrator's Aunt Sheila, but it is not her death that is referred to, or not entirely. Instead, Bernie McGill gradually assembles a series of apparently trivial events to create what is possibly a ghost story, but definitely a tragedy.
This story reminded me of short fiction by the late William Trevor. It offers the same economy, the same startling combination of the commonplace and the shocking. I can safely reproduce that last lines here because nothing is given away.
'And I marvel, not for the first time, at the secrets people keep, for themselves, and for others, at the sadnesses that betray them, and at the small quiet lives that they continue to live out until the end of their days.'
This is a horror tale and I won't go into any further details on that. Suffice to say that the reaction of Sheila's dog to an old ice house is significant. A sombre and compassionate tale, then, of unhappiness, loss, and the cruelty of convention.
Saturday, 28 May 2022
A collection of 'Strange Stories from Northern Ireland' is bound to be steeped in history. But whose history, and to what intent?
In the case of Moyra Donaldson's tale of an artist in crisis, history is both personal and societal. The protagonist is blithely unaware of her husband's cheating until he informs her of it and suddenly her marriage is over. She escapes to a house in the country to try and work, and gradually becomes fascinated - possessed, even - by the landscape and wildlife, particularly the forest. She immerses herself in nature to the extent that she 'plugs in' to all the human experience that has occurred in the area. Eventually she encounters a ghost, of sorts, and a new phase in her life begins. Or at least, a new form of existence.
The story is an interesting variation on a familiar theme, the creative person who escapes to some solitary location that proves to be haunted. In the classic ghostly tale the main character is almost invariably male and the haunting is to some extent malign. Here the situation is reversed and the artist embraces the events of the past that blend the natural and supernatural. It's a surprising story, and I enjoyed it.
I'll move on to the fourth story tomorrow, with luck.
Friday, 27 May 2022
See my previous post for more details on this anthology of the weird, surreal, and dream-like. 'Original Features' has the feel of a haunted house story, following the life of a married couple and their children from the time they move into a new home. An old lady lived in the house before, alone. The mother begins to dream of a mysterious room, and then her daughter suffers night terrors and begins to walk in her sleep. The cool, present-tense narration is extremely effective, and the characters are developed more fully than in many novels.
Eventually, the family moves and, later, the daughter grows up and leaves home. But the mother is still haunted, and when she becomes a grandmother the power of the mysterious room grows more intense. A chance revelation leads to a denouement that recalls, inevitably, 'The Door in the Wall', but shifts the emphasis from the masculine sphere of public life and friendship into the more intimate and ultimately stranger world of the domestic.
So, an excellent story. I hope to review - albeit briefly - the third tale in the anthology tomorrow.
Thursday, 26 May 2022
I hope to write a running review with a piece about a story every day or so. Apologies if it takes me longer than that. Disclosure - I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.
Many years ago I was browsing in (I think) a public library when I did That Thing. It's a thing bookish types do a lot, I suspect. I saw an interesting title and didn't pick it up and examine it. But the title stayed with me. It was Ireland and the English Crisis, by Tom Paulin, published in 1984. Perhaps now would be a good time to get a second-hand paperback and actually read it, as the English crisis continues to afflict Ireland.
Which brings me to The Black Dreams. The title comes from 'Autobiography', a poem by Louis Macneice, son of a Northern Ireland clergyman. It's worth quoting a little of it. Seek it out, it is not long.When I was five the black dreams came;
Nothing after was quite the same.
Come back early or never come.
The dark was talking to the dead;
The lamp was dark beside my bed.
Come back early or never come.
These stories were specially commissioned for this anthology by Reggie Chamberlain-King, who provides a substantial introduction. It begins: 'I don’t recall if I saw my first gunman in my childhood nightmares or on my childhood streets.There were plenty in both and they looked very much like each other.' He goes on to discuss the importance of genre fiction - and other parts of pop culture - as a way of coping with an all-too-real but deeply irrational state of affairs.
This is not a horror anthology, but it contains plenty of horrors. The first story, 'The Black', is a good example. In a few pages Ian Sansom tells the simple tale of a man who redecorates his home. Eventually all is black, The narrator, the man's sister, explains that he had to be sectioned. But these is no escaping the blackness of the title, because it must manifest itself, erasing colour and overwhelming everything. It's a powerful opener, with great metaphorical power.
With luck, I will have my take on another story tomorrow or shortly after.
Sunday, 22 May 2022
Cities (entwined with verdant jungles) that
Were old before inhabitants took them
Now blind intra-cosmic polyps are sat
In the crystalline core of the world gem...
Anyone who knows their Lovecraft is aware of the Yith. They are the race of superbeings who sent their minds out through time and space to possess various members of other species, partly to acquire knowledge for its own sake, but also to spy out the terrain, so to speak. The Yith can transfer themselves en masse to occupy the minds of other species and thus survive various cosmic catastrophes, natural or otherwise, that threaten their survival. When Lovecraft first describes them, they've got impending polyp trouble.
Saturday, 21 May 2022
This collection of short pieces - some are just two or three pages long - is a delight. I like non-fiction books one can dip into and ferret around in, and Blackwood's occasional pieces are ideal for this. Some are previously unpublished items written for the BBC (though a few did appear in the house magazine, The Listener). Others have long been out of print. Mike Ashley, a renowned expert on Blackwood, has picked an excellent selection, offering insights onto several aspects of Blackwood's remarkable life.
Tuesday, 10 May 2022
The original Candyman (1992) was based on 'The Forbidden', a story by British author Clive Barker. Writer-director Bernard Rose took Barker's original tale, which is set in Liverpool, and transferred it to the impoverished, crime-ridden Chicago neighbourhood of Cabrini Green. Barker's theme focused on the British class system. Rose shifted the emphasis to American racial politics, making a horrific lynching the triggering factor in the creation of a unique creature of (fictional) folklore. And, yes, bees are involved. Among other things.
The plot of the first movie concerns a white graduate student investigating the urban legend of Candyman. Say his name five times in a mirror and he will appear - and kill you with his hook hand. The student, played by Virginia Madsen, becomes increasingly obsessed by the legend and eventually descends into apparent insanity. The film did well at the box office and spawned a couple of less well-regarded sequels.
The new Candyman is a direct sequel to the original movie, set in contemporary Cabrini Green. The area has been gentrified, and the protagonist is a black artist, Antony McCoy (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) who has just moved into an upscale apartment with his girlfriend, Brianna Cartwright (Teyonah Parris). The legend of Candyman is front and centre from the start - Brianna's brother tells the story, or at least part of it. Because the spectral killer is in fact a combination of many victims of injustice, all still raging against the bigotry that killed them.
Thursday, 5 May 2022
This handsome collection of stories ranges quite widely through genres, with one tale venturing into X-Files territory, complete with aliens. However, the vast majority of the works collected here fall into the broad category of weird fiction - stories that, while they may not have an overtly supernatural content, do challenge the reader's conception of what is real.
First up is 'The Moor', originally published in ST #39. It is set in the author's home county of Yorkshire, which serves the same artistic purpose as the Welsh borders in the fiction of Arthur Machen. Here is an ancient landscape inhabited by superficially practical, down-to-earth people. But one only needs scratch the surface to find strangeness and mysticism, not to mention menace, beneath.
Some tales are light-hearted. In 'Village Life' some young incomers interview old inhabitants, and the latter invent a series of increasingly bizarre and disturbing tales of orgies and Black Masses in the chapel. As a way of making rural property more affordable, it certainly has its merits. 'Showtime' is also fairly frivolous, at first at least, as a shy author faces the discomfort of having to be outgoing during the inevitable round of signings and other personal appearances. It takes an unusual twist, to say the least.
At the more serious end of the spectrum is 'The Dreaming', in which a sensitive man leaves a mainstream career to become a kind of psychic consultant, or modern shaman. He helps people at the cost of his own well-being, facing a world from which the beauty has been leached out. But there is at least a hint of some mystical escape at the end.
Tuesday, 26 April 2022
This handsome volume collects some of the weird tales of a remarkable woman who first enjoyed success in the theatre, only later moving on to become a short story writer and novelist. Clotilde 'Clo' Graves (1863-1932) was born in Cork but spent much of her working life in England. In her forties adopted the pen-name Richard Dehan and also followed the fashion of quite a few literary and artistic ladies by adopting male attire. For the last few years of her life she lived in retirement in a Middlesex convent.
It's interesting to note that her first work for the stage was entitled Nitocris. The Egyptian queen who bumped off her enemies was also the anti-heroine of the first short story by another playwright, Tennesse Williams. And, before she gained a reputation for gothic and ghostly fiction, she had helped adapt Rider Haggard's She for the stage. Haggard may have been one of the major influences on her work.
The stories in this collection certainly include a few examples of what is termed 'Empire Gothic', accounts of British colonial doings that trigger strange and occult events. This is particularly true of 'The Mother of Turquoise', in which a British expedition finds a rich vein of the eponymous stone near a temple of the Egyptian goddess Hathor. The story developes into a lurid tale of human sacrifice and mystical shenanigans. A central figure, an aged African witch woman, is very similar to Gagool in King Solomon's Mines.
I've been ill for over a week with a presumed virus that, according to several LFTs, is not Covid but certainly feels like it. Apparently, there is 'something going round'. Anyone wondering why I haven't posted anything in a while, that's why. I am on the mend but still mentally foggy and very tired.
Thursday, 7 April 2022
The first great ghost story movie made in my lifetime (sort of) is also arguably the best.
Henry James' 'The Turn of the Screw' is rightly considered a landmark in the genre, but it is also tricky to dramatise because relatively little happens - at least in the way of action. Much that is crucial occurs in the mind of the young governess, who is forced to confront some terrible truths about this world and the next. What's more, the constraints of his own artistic sensibility - not to mention the actual laws of the day - made it difficult for James to convey just how depraved the children in the story become under the paranormal influence of Peter Quint and his abused lover, Miss Jessel.
And yet Jack Clayton's film manages to tackle all of these problems and emerge triumphantly - in just over 90 minutes there is never a dull moment and some scenes are intensely disturbing. This is in part due to excellent casting. Megs Jenkins as the housekeeper is - as always - wonderfully watchable. Deborah Kerr's governess is excellent, recalling the put-upon ladies of Victorian melodrama and reminding us that Henry James (like that other James, Montague Rhodes) admired Le Fanu.
The script might have been a problem. The opening credits first mention John Mortimer for 'additional scenes and dialogue', then Truman Capote and William Archibald. That kind of thing often signals a troubled production, but here there are few signs of revision or general tinkering. The odd Americanism does creep in but that's about it. The script was based on Archibald's 1950 stage play - hence some additional bits and bobs.
This is a film of the seen and unseen, heard and unheard. It is just barely possible that there are no ghosts and that Myles and Flora are simply lonely, troubled children. Their parents are dead, after all, and their only close relative (Michael Redgrave, as good as you'd expect) rejects them in all but a financial sense. But we can't disbelieve the governess, or at least not completely. This is a story in which belief in supernatural evil is actually more comforting than the alternative.
It seems that major creative differences were the driving force for much of the film's ambiguous power. Clayton and Archibald differed on whether the governess was just imagining it all. Archibald took the traditional view and, to his credit, Clayton favouring a more Freudian interpretation didn't stop him from including a long, dream-like scene that hints at the opposite.
At just over ninety minutes, The Innocents manages to deal with every aspect of the traditional, Victorian ghost story and still be a compelling 20th-century drama. It stands up remarkably well today. Indeed, there has been a modest revival in period Gothic lately. A good time to seek out the House of Bly if you don't know it, or return for a visit if you do.
Thursday, 31 March 2022
Tuesday, 22 March 2022
Thursday, 17 March 2022
Sunday, 13 March 2022
Friday, 11 March 2022
Thursday, 24 February 2022
Sunday, 20 February 2022
I thought I'd list the contributors and throw in little samples from their stories, too.
To kick off, I’ll have to admit how much I loved to watch Gregory sitting so elegantly in his office chair, his slim legs crossed, that charming smile on his face, talking the good talk. It was easy to admire his fatal facility, the knack of being able to speak well on almost any subject, to entertain, inform or divert attention from an awkward question. It’s a skill I all too obviously lack. I’ve never had any charm or elegance myself. I’m good with facts and figures, that’s all, and I like to think I can recognise talent when I see it.
Thursday, 3 February 2022
I paused in my reading of this fascinating book to make a note of this remark by one key character:
"When Hegel called Giordano Bruno 'Bacchantic' he didn't mean it as a compliment."
This is not a conventional horror novel. The speaker is Aridela, a beautiful woman who becomes the lover and 'perfect Priestess' of Cyrus. The latter's quest to discover the truth about the long-vanished artist Gaunt takes him into the realm of a group of wealthy cultists, to which Aridela belongs. At first, it seems he has found his spiritual home. This is despite the fact that Cyrus is working-class and lacks formal education. But then the actual Bacchantic ritual of the Pan worshippers takes place, and things become rather unpleasant. Weighell handles the transition from erudite table talk to extreme violence with consummate skill.
Cyrus, appalled by what he has seen, breaks up with Aridela and returns to the grim round of dead-end jobs and solitary questing after arcane truths. Eventually, this takes him to a seaside town where he attempts to question Westfall, a sick old man who knows something of ritual magic. At first, Westfall seems harmless enough, but Cyrus soon comes to realise that he has strayed into a very dangerous presence. He makes the mistake of being too flippant with Westfall and suffers for it. Without going into details, our hero narrowly avoids falling victim to a very well-realised supernatural menace.
Sunday, 30 January 2022
Wednesday, 26 January 2022
Sunday, 23 January 2022
The last book by renowned author Ron Weighell had to be a major event. King Satyr is a novel - albeit a fairly short one - that includes major elements of autobiography, quite a few characters based on real people, and some excellent set-pieces. But we all know the unspoken (or sometimes spoken) question whenever a posthumous work by a much-loved writer appears. Does it disappoint?
Saturday, 8 January 2022
This very handsome volume has lovely cover art by Brian Coldrick, which gives a pretty good idea of the content. Sinister veiled lady , hypodermic, whacking great snake, revolver, chap in a top hat! Might we be in the realms of weird Victorian fiction? Good Lord, yes.
L.T. Meade was an Irish-born contemporary of H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and enjoyed comparable popularity in the 1890s, when she was one of the top writers for The Strand magazine. Her reputation has not lasted so well, though, in part because her brand of weird mystery/crime fiction straddles the marshy ground between Conan Doyle's 'pure' detective fiction and Wells' proto-sf. As a result the stories in this book ofter read like uneasy hybrids. She was also extraordinarily prolific and her girls' school stories became immensely popular, throwing the rest of her work into the shade. It is better to succeed than to fail, of course, but spare a thought for the prolific and versatile writer whose best work is almost forgotten thanks to remarkable success in one narrow field.
Sunday, 2 January 2022
The final story in Terror Tales of the Scottish Lowlands takes us to St Andrews and its environs - and also the Antarctic. It's a fine example of a period piece, drawing on the long and noble tradition of polar horror, where the killer cold and weird light conspire to remove characters from anything resembling normality. Lovecraft handled it well, of course, as did Conan Doye, and Mary Shelley's anti-hero set off into polar realms to pursue his hapless creation. Then of course there is 'The Waste Land', which I think the title refers to, in which Eliot draws on the idea of an additional presence that haunted Shackleton and two of his comrades. Some have interpreted this fourth presence as a guardian angel...
S.A. Rennie's story begins with the funeral of a celebrated - and notorious - explorer, whose body is interred beneath a Scottish chapel. The brother of the deceased returns to the family home where his sister welcomes him and shares some disturbing information. Suffice to say that their dead brother left behind conventional scientific notions in favour of disturbing, mystical notions about the hollow earth and stranger things. This is a nice nod to Poe - both 'MS Found in a Bottle' with its 'hole at the pole' and the incomplete saga of Arthur Gordon Pym. The latter ends with a vast, white figure looming out of a blizzard.
As more troubling information is revealed, it becomes clear that the arrogant, hubristic explorer sought out and found something powerful and dangerous in the Antarctic. What's more, he seems to have somehow brought it back. Intense cold manifests itself in and around the family home, and the climax of the tale is a tour de force of old-school weirdness, just explicit enough to work on several levels. Editor Paul Finch picked the right story to end the volume, one that lingers in the mind with its vistas of snow-bound wastes and monstrous presences.
And that brings to an end my running review of this excellent paperback. Get over to Telos books - link above- and buy a copy! Not only will you get hours of reading pleasure from the fiction, Paul Finch has also provided excellent capsule accounts of Scottish folk tales and true-life horror as 'palate cleansers' between each story.
Order it here
I paused in my reading of this fascinating book to make a note of this remark by one key character: "When Hegel called Giordano Bruno &...