Sunday 11 February 2024

Read an AI generated ghost story

I gave MS Copilot the following prompt, which is not complex and you can see where problems arose..

Please write a ghost story in the style of M.R. James set in Edwardian England at Cambridge University. It should be 3,000 words long and feature a mysterious book with a Latin title, a professor in his mid-forties who wears glasses, and a young woman reporter. The book tells how to contact spirits of the dead. The professor wants to use it to discover buried treasure somewhere in the grounds of the university.


The Book of Shadows

Professor Arthur Langdon was a respected scholar of ancient languages and literature at Cambridge University. He had a passion for collecting rare and obscure books, especially those related to the occult and the supernatural. He had amassed a large library of such volumes in his office at the university, where he spent most of his time studying and translating them.

One day, he received a letter from a colleague in Italy, who claimed to have found a remarkable book in an old monastery. The book was written in Latin, but with a strange and unfamiliar script. The title was "Liber Umbrarum", or "The Book of Shadows". The colleague said that the book contained secrets of contacting the spirits of the dead, and that he had managed to decipher some of the rituals and spells. He also said that the book hinted at a hidden treasure buried somewhere in the grounds of Cambridge University, and that he was willing to share the information with Langdon, if he agreed to help him with the translation and the exploration.

Saturday 10 February 2024

'The Crucifix'

The penultimate story in Peter Bell's new Hauntings, 'Portrait', was first published in Supernatural Tales back in 2014 as '|The Refurbishment'. It seems an eternity ago, and I hardly need to add that my opinion of the story is at least as high as it was when I accepted it. So, moving along, we come to the final tale. And we also come full circle, as we began in The Cairngorms with 'The Bothy' and now we head north of the border again. On which note:

'Pamela was sure there was more to Scotland, a wilderness to experience.'

Perfectly valid in context, but not ideal from a tourist information viewpoint. 


'The Crucifix' is superficially quite simple as to plot. Pamela, an unscrupulous book dealer, finds herself out of work and takes a job in Scotland, cataloguing a country house library on a behalf of a widow who just wants to sell her late husband's books'. (As a minor aside, isn't it surprising that - in all those Lovecraftian knock-offs - nobody ever seems to consider how staggeringly rich they could become by simply selling the Necronomicon and all those other arcane volumes?) The family were hardcore Covenanters who killed 'witches' and Catholics with grim enthusiasm. Pamela happens to be wearing a crucifix bequeathed by her grandmother, but takes trouble to hide it.

Things go quite well, not least when Pamela discovers that the late laird's collection includes some immensely rare and valuable items. This is a story that only a true bibliophile could have written, especially the scene in which Pamela discovers and immensely rare copy of Dracula. In some old-fashioned ghost stories, Pamela might take a hint and play it straight, just brushing up against terror before doing the right thing. Here, however, greed takes charge and our anti-heroine finds herself facing a judgement on her morals that, while harsh, is not entirely unwarranted. 

And so we reach the end of Hauntings by Peter Bell. I think this is the author's best collection, harking back to the classics and paying homage to the greats of the field, but offering much that is new and interesting. This volume is a worthy addition to any library, haunted or otherwise.

Friday 9 February 2024

'The Swing'

The next story in Peter Bell's new collection, Hauntings, is in fact 'The Tunnel'. But that story first appeared in Supernatural Tales (issue 17, many years ago) so I hardly need to add that I found it more than acceptable. I'll move on, therefore, to a short tale that first appeared in the second Brian Showers anthology in his Uncertainties series.

As you might expect, this is a tale that offers the reader a choice - how much to believe? The time is that unspecified period a few decades ago, with the 'slight haze of distance' recommended by Dr. James. A group of boys are hanging out at a friend's house and the topic of conversation turns to ghosts. A claim is made - Mr. O'Neill across the road has a picture of a ghost. The photograph is obtained, and proves to be disturbing - it has a 'hideous impression of authenticity' (a phrase I thought was plucked from 'Pickman's Model', but I was wrong). 

The photograph subsequently attracts the attention of a mysterious, patrician-looking visitor, and is taken who knows where? The boys grow up, and eventually, the narrator receives news of Mr. O'Neill's death. The man's son explains the possible origin of the phantom captured by his father's camera. Then a story in a tabloid newspaper revives memories of the photograph. Is it a coincidence that so similar a fate befell someone else decades later, and at the same spot? 

While a relatively slight tale this one impressed me. I have always found ghost/spirit photography fascinating, along with the idea of events recurring for arcane reasons. Some places are arguably cursed, haunted, or otherwise rendered uncanny. And, as the author makes clear, such spots are as likely to be found in a run-down housing estate as in a ruined abbey.

The review continues tomorrow.

Wednesday 7 February 2024

'The Curator of Souls'

 



A middle-aged academic falls for a student twenty years his junior. Dr. Slade is unwise but infatuated. Laura is beautiful, erudite, and mysterious. She vanishes periodically, refusing to say where she has been but sending Slade postcards that sometimes bear enigmatic messages. Eventually, after introducing Slade to many and varied erotic experiences, Laura takes her lover to meet another professor, whose studies mirror certain episodes in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe.

This story bears an epigraph from 'The Oval Portrait', but Laura is very reminiscent of Ligeia and Morella. Peter Bell successfully creates a convincing affair that hints at self-destructive tendencies on Slade's part. The finale delivers the goods, as intellectual playfulness gives way to bizarre - one might say grotesque - discoveries. This is another fine tale from Hauntings, which captures some of the Romantic weirdness of Poe while remaining firmly grounded in English horror tropes, particularly the idea of horror revealed within a sleepy cathedral city.

Another one tomorrow - so far, no duds!

Next issue - cover and contents

 


Tuesday 6 February 2024

'The Cry of the Curlew'

 'Anxiety is never a good counsellor'. 

In this story from Peter Bell's Hauntings a retired teacher returns to her deceased aunt's house in rural Aberdeenshire to find things changed. Fiona's girlhood memories are a mixture of the idyllic and the disturbing. Devoting her time to studying earth mysteries and related matters, Fiona sets out to investigate the area with an adult, informed eye. Instead, she gets lost in one of the vast conifer plantations that were created after the notorious Clearances, and stumbles upon some ruins that arouse feelings of unease.

This is a relatively gentle tale, but one that lingers in the mind. The curlew's cry, held to be ominous by some, is a kind of leitmotif running through the story. The truth that emerges after the visit of a respected professor is a sadly familiar tale of working-class folk victimised by callous landowners. Not exactly a ghost story, then, more an account of a haunted landscape. The beauty of the rural skies stands in contrast to the bleakness of glens set aside for rich men to shoot game. But then, the story is loaded with powerful imagery, not least the scene in which Fiona gets lost in the woods and suffers near panic. 

More from this running review tomorrow. So far I am enjoying Hauntings, as you may have guessed!


Monday 5 February 2024

'Ragnarok'

This story from Peter Bell's new collection Hauntings (Sarob Press 2023) jogged my memory. The protagonist ventures to another one of those remote rural churches, this one containing a remarkable hybrid monument to Christianity and Norse mythology. I think I visited the same church with Peter during an excursion arranged by A Ghostly Company. And the cross in question is fascinating, with Odin and other Scandinavian hairy types getting equal billing to Jesus and his entourage. 

The idea of a 'blended family' of deities is here taken a little further, though. The cross is decorated not merely by Norse deities but entities that recall our old pal Howard Philips Lovecraft and his school. The stained glass in the church confirms that something distinctly odd is going on. But the true horror occurs when the protagonist explores the nearby countryside and encounters the most disturbing manure heap in contemporary fiction. I kid you not. 

This is a fun story, a pick-and-mix combination of M.R. Jamesian tropes with Lovecraftian monstrosity. I suspect the author had a lot of fun writing this, and I certainly enjoyed reading it. More tomorrow in this running review.  



Sunday 4 February 2024

'The Reunion'

The third story in Peter Bell's Hauntings strikes a remarkable contrast to its predecessors. A book dealer exploring the former East Germany for rare finds instead discovers a deeply personal horror. An earlier version of this story appeared in Delicate Toxins from Side Real Press, and as you might expect if you know that publisher, it is tinged with decadence. Here we find absinthe, seduction, hallucinatory moments, and many an obscure volume emphatically not for sale.

But this is also a tale of personal tragedy, the way one incident can hollow out a person's life, leaving them a kind of human-shaped shell going through the motions of existence. The protagonist, a widower called Julian, first ventured into East Germany not long after the Wall came down. His small daughter vanished, inexplicably, in one of those trivial moments of inattention all parents know. Cue the intrusive and unhelpful media interest and the horrifying realisation that the child could not be found.

Years later, Julian returns to Saxony for an auction that proves disappointing, then gets lost and low on petrol. He finds refuge at what appears to be a kind of time-warped brothel with an aged madame, a remarkable library, and some even more remarkable girls who watch Julian 'like cats about to pounce'. One, in particular, reminds him of his lost daughter. The original horror of loss is multiplied by a dark denouement. 

The writing in this one surprised me. While still recognisably Bell's, it is far more intense, with poetic passages. 'Monstrous clouds were reaching to the apex of the sky, a bloody canyon rending the tumultuous heavens; crimson, scarlet, vermilion (...) The gloom became intense. But it was not the outside he dreaded, but the darkness within himself.' 

An excellent tale, which nods to Lovecraft, Ewers, and perhaps Jean Lorrain as much as Dr. James and his disciples. I wonder what haunted domain I will be exploring next? Stay tuned for more of this running review.


Saturday 3 February 2024

'Rounding the Stone'

The second story in Hauntings by Peter Bell is an old-school and very enjoyable ghost story that namechecks M.R. James. You know something bad is going to happen to the protagonist when he dismisses MRJ's fiction while praising his scholarship. The story has a near-contemporary setting, with lockdowns and masking referenced. But it's not concern over the virus that leads to resentment from the locals when our narrator sets out to find an obscure chapel in the Welsh borders. 

This is a nicely balanced story, redolent of many a classic tale, and rounded off by scholarly references. It leaves just enough unexplained while linking the latest pandemic with earlier plagues, and stressing how Christian tradition sometimes dovetails with earlier beliefs. As always, Bell evokes that spirit of place so essential to the Jamesian tale.

Tune in tomorrow for my opinion of the third story!


 

Friday 2 February 2024

HAUNTINGS - Tales of Supernatural Dread by Peter Bell (Sarob Press 2023)

 

Paul Lowe provides another excellent dustjacket

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

It's been a while since I did a running review of a collection as I work my way through the stories, so I thought I'd revive the custom here with 'The Bothy'. 

The first tale in Peter Bell's new book evoked nostalgia in your humble reviewer, as it is set in the Cairngorms. I have happy memories of childhood summer holidays in that part of Scotland, very different from those set down by the story's narrator. The tale concerns two friends who set out to tackle a hazardous trail in late winter and find themselves benighted in the eponymous building during a blizzard. A third person appears, clearly desperate, and the men try to help her. Come the next morning, the two are alone again, confronted by an apparently insoluble mystery. 

This is a good start to the collection - a solid ghostly tale with a well-described setting and sympathetic characters. There is also a very nice touch that recalls some of the cleverer devices of earlier writers such as E.F. Benson (a mountain lover himself) and of course Blackwood. So, a good start. Looking forward to the next one, which I will read tomorrow night. 

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...