Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Crooked House

I still like a good ghost story. Yes, my years editing a magazine chock full of the things has not put me off, the way people who work in sweetie factories are said to come to loathe bonbons. So I'm rather pleased that this year the BBC has come up with not one but three new ghostly tales. Crooked House is a bit like the portmanteau horror movies produced - with varying success - about forty years back. You get a linking narrative, with the archetypal Sly Old Chap telling the equally familiar Eager Young Chap a story, in this case about a house with an evil heritage. Mwa-ha-ha, etc.

Crooked House has the advantage of a very strong cast and a good script, by Mark Gatiss. If it has a weakness, it's that historical ghost stories, while quaint and fun, do tend to keep the action at a bit of a distance. That said, the historical bits have enough to hold the discerning viewer's interest. The first part, 'The Wainscoting', is set in the 1780s, pretty much M.R. James territory. Indeed, there is at least one sly reference to MRJ and the BBC's Christmas ghost story tradition - the main characters meet in Gordon Clark's coffee house. The story isn't bad, but the denouement was a bit weak, I felt.

The second episode, 'Something Old', is far better. Interestingly, Gatiss seems to have grasped the essence of the inter-war era ghost story of the sort produced by Benson, Burrage and Wakefield. There's the cynical wit and shallowness of the Bright Young Things, the class snobbery, and - last but not least - the mutilation. As well as being a good self-contained tale, it was a pleasure to see Jean Marsh in a starring role again. Give the woman a Damehood, if she hasn't already got one.

I'll watch the final episode, the one with a contemporary setting, later. I hope there's a bit of a twist. You can, if you prefer, watch the whole thing in one go. Let me know what you think of it!

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Christmas Poems (That Won't Make You Throw Up)


Mistletoe

Walter de la Mare (1873-1956)

Sitting under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
One last candle burning low,
All the sleepy dancers gone,
Just one candle burning on,
Shadows lurking everywhere:
Some one came, and kissed me there.

Tired I was; my head would go
Nodding under the mistletoe
(Pale-green, fairy mistletoe),
No footsteps came, no voice, but only,
Just as I sat there, sleepy, lonely,
Stooped in the still and shadowy air
Lips unseen - and kissed me there. 

The Oxen

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are all on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come; see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Ceremonies for Christmas

by Robert Herrick (1591-1674)

Come, bring with a noise,
My merry, merry boys,
The Christmas Log to the firing;
While my good Dame, she
Bids ye all be free;
And drink to your heart's desiring.

With the last year's brand
Light the new block, and
For good success in his spending,
On your Psaltries play,
That sweet luck may
Come while the log is a-tinding.

Drink now the strong beer,
Cut the white loaf here,
The while the meat is a-shredding;
For the rare mince-pie
And the plums stand by
To fill the paste that's a-kneading.  

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Frankenstein!


While not strictly supernatural - though there's a bit of hocus-pocus in the novel, as I recall - Frankenstein remains one of the great Gothic tales. An excellent blog exists, which is well worth checking out. Apparently someone is making yet another movie based on the book. It's still got legs, as they say. Big, stiff legs ending in clompy square shoes. Though, as the above illustration shows, the monster was not originally conceived in that way. Slightly M.R. Jamesian, if anything. 

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Kay Fletcher

Kay is a jolly good writer who ought to be looked at (in a good way) by all right-thinking people, and quite a few wrong-thinking ones. Her site is here. I am also bunging it into my link list, so there.

Friday, 12 December 2008

In Which I Receive a Nice Poem


I sent an electronic Yuletide card to all the nice people I know. Well, all right, I may have missed out a few through incompetence. But it's the thought that counts. And Kay Fletcher, writer and artist, sent me a nice poem! Well, actually a spooky poem, but that's the point. 

Vampires on the Moor

Scripted at this point surely

when the grouse explodes from the heather

the tall shadow of the standing stone

flicks from its dark cuff creeping fingers.

 

My spectacles pebbled with tiny

fish eye lenses I say ‘we’re lost,’

as on the flimsiest of walks leaflets

fangs of rain bite down.

A shamefaced acknowledgement

I've just realised that the spiffing new illustration above, giving a bit of style to my otherwise not-exactly-stunning title, has not been acknowledged. The wonderful Ro Pardoe of Ghosts and Scholars sent me (some time ago) two images she created by digital tinkery means. Unfortunately she is laid up with flu at the moment, according to her husband Darroll, and I haven't actually been able to get her permission to use the image.. I picked the one that was less scary (the other one had a big spider). If you notice this, Ro, please do not pass me the runes! I'm just sort of assuming you wouldn't mind. 

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Many thanks

Thanks are multiplying in my brain for Nomis, who has fixed my bizarre blog title problem. I would offer him a biscuit if were on the same continent. Now all that remains is for me to find a title illustration that doesn't screw it all up again. Hmmm...

Witticisms? Moi?

I received an email from writer Stone Franks, who lives quite near me. So I must tread carefully and publicise everything she wants...

Dear David,
  Can I get some 'local girl done bad' publicity on the ST blog for my new (lesbo)erotic short story 'Taught' which is set in Newcastle and comes out on December 29th? It is available only from eXcessica Publishing who can be found at www.excessica.com. You can read the first paragraph on my MySpace page at www.myspace.com/stone_of_the_franks As usual it an epic narrative of angry muscular young women with very short hair tearing each other's clothes off.

STONE

---------------

Er, okay. Should I just post the email as written? I'm sure it would attract some attention. I love your use of the phrase 'as usual', there, by the way.
 
All the best

David

---------------

Yeah, unless you have some of your own witticisms you'd like to add.

STONE

My work here is done.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Can Anybody Help Meeeee?

Note the title thingy at the top there, just above this. It has a flippin' Google thing in it rather than the pic I want to use to illustrate my lovely blog. I can't figure out how this happened. Can anyone suggest how I can get rid of this annoying incursion? I've tried but lack the aptitude with modern technology, as I live a solitary existence in a book-lined tower on an island inhabited by talking puffins. Well, very nearly. 

Schalcken the Painter

One of the best stories of Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was adapted by BBC TV in 1979. It's a bit too slow for my tastes but I tend to be outvoted. It is certainly a visually beautiful piece, and the ending is genuinely horrific. The major problem is that the characters aren't especially sympathetic. But what the heck, the first ten minutes or so are on YouTube so I thought I'd put it out here. 

I'm now famous for about twenty minutes, setting a new blog record

This is from Britblog Roundup at Redemption Blues:

'Guest-blogging at Heresy Corner, the magnificently-pseudonymed Valdemar Squelch (I agree that Dave, his real name, doesn’t have quite the same ring to it), provides the uninitiated with an excellent and thoroughly enjoyable introduction to the fiction of Montague Rhodes James in The Hairy Claws of the Vengeful Dead, placing the stories within the wider cultural context: "James could hardly have been unaware of the prolonged intellectual ferment that followed the publication of Darwin’s ideas. The great debate spanned the early decades of James’ life. As a Christian by upbringing and inclination, M.R. James believed in the immortal soul. Yet as a man of his time - and a very intelligent one - he could not have been untouched (untainted?) by the materialistic outlook of the new science of biology. Disraeli said the question was whether Man was an Ape or an Angel and famously came down ‘on the side of the Angels’. James does not seem so sure, in his fiction at least. he offers us spirits that are bestial, yet still in a horrible way human - human enough to be dangerous, with just enough mind to nurse a grievance".

Hopefully, this week’s compendium will have sufficed to silence the detractors of blogging, albeit temporarily, about the merits of our output.'

He put me right at the end of his review, not the ned as I originally typed because I'm over-excited, no, at the END, and that means I'm the best because you always save the best for last, just like I always used to eat the fruit salad and save the ice cream. I am over-excited, did I mention that? Well, it's good to be mentioned on the interwebs. Thanks to the Heresiarch for passing this on, as I am very much a novice at this blogging lark and probably always will be a bit 'out of it'.

Now, where's that post about muscle-bound lesbians tearing each others' clothes off? Oh well, it'll keep.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Incoming!

No, hang about, I mean Upcoming! Rather than just maunder on about stuff I thought I'd give a quick preview of some of the throbbingly exciting stories I'm publishing next year (if I'm spared). First up is a new writer to ST, Louis Marvick, and a remarkable debut story, 'Pockets of Emptiness'. This is a traditional ghostly tale, recounted by the fire to an attentive audience. But the setting - the post-war Netherlands - and the plot are both unusual, and the writing is elegant and elegiac. Wonderful stuff:

'When I turned out the pockets of my new jacket I made a surprising discovery. A flash of orange caught my eye; I investigated, and found that the insides of both pockets were lined with silk—and what silk! Not sober panels in a congruent shade of blue or grey, but finely-worked mosaics of small, grosgrain pieces, each vividly coloured and stitched to the others with great skill—by “the ladies of the town”, I realized, remembering the words of my Tsjerkesleat landlady. '

What is the significance of the strange patchwork? Suffice to say the conclusion is moving and satisfying. Another first-timer in 2009 is Rosalie Parker. Here is the first paragraph of her story 'The Picture':

The picture hung at the far end of the junk shop, its quality shining as clear as a moonbeam through the detritus that surrounded it. Sadie thought at first that it must be a print, but closer inspection proved it to be indeed a drawing, as the label affixed to it claimed. In it, a dark haired, curiously androgynous figure, half-draped in a voluminous white garment, gazed adoringly, imploringly, in profile at some unseen entity above. His slender, long-fingered hands (Sadie decided it was a he, despite the shoulder length hair) were clasped together over his chest. She thought it was mid-Victorian, probably Continental, possibly French, and of a very high standard of draughtsmanship. 

Sadie is on a bargain hunt, but not in a naff TV sort of way. Rosalie Parker is one half of the husband-and-wife publishing phenomenon that is Tartarus Press (see my link list). So it's only fair that the other half, Ray Russell, also has a story in an upcoming ST. This one has a suitably seasonal setting:

‘So, why exactly are you here?’ asked the old woman.

Shirley could not have replied immediately, even if she hadn’t just put a large and glutinous lump of Turkish delight into her mouth. Spending the festive season with an elderly lady she did not know had seemed an entirely reasonable thing to do when she had agreed early in December. Her friend, Jane, had said she was aware of two people who would be on their own for Christmas that year, and she had played matchmaker. The fact that Jane knew both Shirley and Mrs Finch quite well did not mean that the two strangers would necessarily be compatible when their friend-in-common was removed from the equation. And anyway, Shirley thought, just how well did Jane really know this awkward old specimen?

From 'Company', by Ray Russell, one of those enigmatic tales reminiscent (to me at any rate) of Walter de la Mare, with perhaps a touch of the Aickmans. Like Tartarus Press, Joel Lane should need no introduction to the discerning reader. His story 'Beneath the Streets' is pretty grim, offering psychological realism in a modern urban setting:

A shadow lurched towards him from the side, and he turned away. Suddenly it was difficult to breathe. He stumbled in the murky light, fell, hit a snow-covered step. The pain felt like a memory. Footsteps rang out in the tunnel behind him. Mark climbed on his hands and knees, struggling for breath. Cold air and yellow light struck his face. He looked back. There was no-one there. The viaduct of Livery Street loomed before him, a black silhouette against the dull twilight.

Okay, so not a barrel of laughs, but powerful stuff. I'm rather pleased to have such a diverse range of styles and themes in my literary pipeline, so to speak. Let's end with a passage from another seasonal tale, 'Red Christmas' by the Scottish writer Jim Steele. This is a flashback to the Korean War:

  “What do you think, boys?” asked Eric, “All over by Christmas?”
  “I’ll be away by Christmas,” said someone sitting a couple of places down from Harry.
  “Would that be yourself speaking, Donald MacDonald?” asked Private Sales in a mock-teuchter voice from across the wagon. Despite his first name being Ian, Sales was one of the Anglo members of the regiment.
  “Aye.”
  “What makes you say that, Donald?” asked Eric.
  “I just know it to be so. And I won’t be the only one, Mister Sales.”
  A silence descended on them after this exchange. Trust the big Highlander to depress them even further, thought Harry.


All over by Christmas? Well, fragments of shiny wrapping paper will be all over my home by Christmas, at this rate. I really am rubbish at wrapping presents. I am also surrounded by empty bottles, and the two problems may not be unconnected. But in the meantime, in case I don't find anything else to post about, let me wish visitors to this blog - be ye a firm fan of ST or a waif passing in the cyberdarkness - compliments of the season. 


Friday, 5 December 2008

In Which I Become Famous...

... for about 15 minutes, if I'm lucky. The Heresiarch, owner of a prestigious political blog I sometimes comment upon, invited me to write a guest post. Media tartlet that I am, I decided to contribute my fascinating views on M.R. James to the wider world. You can read all about it here. The obvious downside to this is that I am now firmly in the government's sights and may be made to 'disappear' when the inevitable crackdown finally begins. But, hey, look on the bright side, it could generate a bit of interest. So, swings and roundabouts.