Monday, 30 May 2022

The Black Dreams - 'The Leaving Place' by Jan Carson

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. 


This is another story where the writerly technique matches the ambition. It is the description of one short period in a man's life that opens out into a kind paean to life itself, to the need to go on because there is nothing else. Given that so many of us have endured over the last few years, it is a poignant and heartfelt story. 

Goths Up Trees - The True Heralds of Summer

"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. 


Looking a bit punk there, and all the better for it!


The classic look, with a hint of Karloff/Lugosi about the setting and general tone.


Well, okay, you tried.






Sunday, 29 May 2022

The Black Dreams - 'A Loss' by Bernie McGill

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

The Black Dreams - 'The Woman Who Let Go' by Moyra Donaldson

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

The Black Dreams - 'Original Features' by Jo Baker

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

The Black Dreams - Strange Stories from Northern Ireland (Blackstaff Press 2021)

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

Codex Yith - Poetry Pamphlet by Cardinal Cox

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

The Lure of the Unknown - Essays on the Strange, by Algernon Blackwood (Swan River Press 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

CANDYMAN - 2021 Dir. Nia DaCosta

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 IIwho 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

THROUGH THE STORM by Rosalie Parker (PS Publishing Ltd 2021)

 

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.

Issue 50 is now available

  Order it here