Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Female Ghost


It's never occurred to me before, but the ghost story as a genre has arguably been welcoming to female writers, certainly when compared to (say) science fiction, where within living memory women writers had to disguise their gender, lest spotty boys be outraged by the presence of girls in the gang. (CL Moore, anyone? How about Leigh Brackett, or James Tiptree Jnr?). Anyway, BBC 7 is doing a series of ghost stories by women. They are 'The Cold Embrace' by Mary Braddon, 'Man Size in Marble' by Edith Nesbit, and 'Afterward' by Edith Wharton. It's a pity there are no more recent efforts, though. I would have chosen 'The Tower' by Marghanita Laski, plus something by Joan Aiken and a Joyce Carol Oates. But there you go - copyright and all that.

It is, too

Smiling Queen Victoria

Whistling in the Dark


I was disappointed, and so was my mother. While my mother is not an expert in supernatural fiction, when we discussed watching Whistle and I'll Come to You she remarked that it was a terrifying story. And of course you always anticipate good things when John Hurt takes the lead. Unfortunately the BBC's latest 'adaptation' took so many liberties with MR James' story that little of it remained.

Admittedly, there is a case for the defence. It's impossible to get a new ghost story commissioned by the BBC, so the only way for a writer and/or producer to explore new ideas is to piggyback them on a classic. I find this unconvincing - it means that what you end up with is not, really, a new story so much as a bastardised version of an old one. Oh well, there's always next year.

Monday, 27 December 2010

The Haunted Palace

Arguably the one horror writer of distinction to get a raw deal at the movie is HP Lovecraft. Okay, his stuff is densely worded and chock-full of his own concocted mythology, which is harder to explain than the usual 'Oh, so it's a werewolf eating the villagers.' But it's still a pity that so few efforts to put HPL's ideas on screen stand up to more than one watching.

Among the best is - perhaps surprisingly - a Roger Corman flick that he made during his Poe period. The Haunted Palace is in fact touted as 'based on a poem by Edgar Allan Poe and a story by HP Lovecraft'. This is such a blatant lie that the magnitude is almost admirable. The script by Charles Beaumont is a free but respectful adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. The Poe bit consists of Vincent Price's voice-over quoting a few lines from 'The Haunted Palace' that aren't even especially apt.

What the story loses in the transposition to film it gains in cinematic virtues. Vincent Price plays Ward and his evil ancestor Joseph Curwen the New England 'wizard'. Ward's long-suffering wife is the cracking Debra Paget. Lon Chaney is excellent, if somewhat under-used, as the long-lived henchperson. And there's a thing in a pit, and another thing in an attic, plus curses and a mob with torches. The sets (it's an all-studio job) are good, too, especially the village of Arkham - much smaller than Lovecraft envisaged, but still adequately ghoul-haunted. Highly recommended, this one - a neglected, unpretentious minor masterpiece.


Thursday, 23 December 2010

Weird Winter Tales

This is a guest review from Cardinal Cox.


Reading was surrounded in fog and snow as my train chugged from London into its’ station. The Central Library is a modern four-storey affair, reputedly built on the site of an ancient abbey.

In the entrance to the second floor reference section musician and author Chris Lambert had created an ambient installation under his Music for Zombies nom-de-tune. For more information go to www.chrislambert.net

The event started at noon with Gwilym Games (editor of the Friends of Arthur Machen newsletter Machenaliawww.machensoc.demon.co.uk) delivering a talk on the importance of libraries in the works of H. P. Lovecraft. Academic and occultist Dr. David Evans then joined Gwilym to discuss the Necronomicon in Lovecraft and the various created versions. I had hoped that Reading’s David Langford might have been present to offer some reminiscences about the George Hay version to which he had contributed a chapter. (I had first heard of the event via Langford’s Ansible, but unfortunately he did not attend). This section of the day ended with Dave Evans talking about Kenneth Grant (head of the Typhonian OTO) who has incorporated much Lovecraftian imagery into his rituals. Much of the talk about Grant is also covered in his excellent study of modern British occultism, The History of British Magic after Crowley. Dr. Evans also mentioned that the library is built over a river that runs through a tunnel underneath.

During both the first and second breaks podcasts were played from such drama producers as: -
Cast Macabre (castmacabre.org);
Drabblecast Audio Fiction (web.me.com/normsherman);
Dunesteef Audio Fiction (dunesteef.com);
Escape Pod (escapepod.org);
And Pseudopod (pseudopod.org)

The second section started with myself performing some poetry including Poe’s The City in the Sea and Lovecraft’s St. Toad's as well as some of my own. This was followed by Gwilym giving an illustrated talk upon an expedition to Devon in search of Lovecraft’s ancestors and the influence they might have had upon his writing. Then the author John Llewellyn Probert (Wicked Delights and other books – www.johnprobert.com) read extracts from a Siberian-set novel that features a lake filled with curious creatures.

The third section of the day started again with myself performing some poetry, and then two short animated films – Terrible Old Man and Statement of Randolf Carter – made by Eldritch Animation were shown. These, and I have to say they were very well done, are available (apparently) on You Tube. www.eldritchanimation.com

John and Gwilym then discussed Lovecraftian cinema (accompanied by showing various trailers) both direct adaptations (such as the 1970’s The Dunwich Horror and the more recent Dagon) and others that have only taken on the spirit of Lovecraft (Caltiki, Quatermass and the Pit, In the Mouth of Madness, etc.) Mulled wine and gingerbread snowmen – without icing snow – followed and then the audience, that had swelled to over fifty during the day, enjoyed HPLHS’ silent movie adaptation of The Call of Cthulhu. This was defiantly enjoyed by all and we look forward to their forthcoming Whisper in the Darkness, the trailer for which was shown in the previous panel. www.cthulhulives.org

In these days of cutbacks and budget constraints it was good that a library service not only took the chance to try something like this but also that it succeeded so well.


The Phantom Coach : A ghost story for Christmas

MRJ Documentary

Revenants


Daniel Mills' first novel is a remarkable debut. Set on what was the wild frontier of New England in August and October 1689, the story concerns Cold Marsh, a small community of Puritans under the sway of Isaiah Bellringer, a fanatical 'hell-fire and damnation' preacher. Bellringer is growing old, but his sway over the colony remains strong. His chosen successor is Edwin, an intelligent young man betrothed to the lovely Ruth. Scenes in which the couple go courting through the village - being careful to walk four feet apart - are telling. This is a society in which any physical contact between the sexes provides the Devil with an opportunity to instigate lustful deeds.

When the novel begins he Devil is also believed to be more active than usual around Cold Marsh - two young women have recently disappeared. One has been found dead from no obvious cause. The other has seemingly vanished forever. It is the villagers' response to the third disappearance that forms the central part of the novel, when three parties of men set out to search the wilderness to the north and west. Each party finds evidence not of a Satanic abduction, but of their community's own bleak heritage and even bleaker destiny.

The Devil is the one character who never quite appears, but is always just offstage. Daniel Mills brilliantly evokes the way in which supposedly rational adults can be absolutely possessed by the notion of personal evil, fixated on the need to obey God's will, and yet still behave - individually and socially - in vile ways. Nathaniel Hawthorne is the great (acknowledged) influence, and an extract from 'The Minister's Black Veil' serves as a preface.

In the case of Cold Marsh, collective guilt lies heavy on the older generation because a pre-emptive attack launched on a peaceful native village years before. Parallels with modern American foreign policy are there if you want to see them. The guilt lies especially heavy on William, Edwin's father, an old Roundhead officer who led the onslaught proscribed by Bellringer. William is perhaps the most 'modern' character in the novel. But I surprised to find that, while to know all is not to forgive all, it can take you a lot of the way. Even Bellringer - the village's dark Calvinist heart - is not unsympathetic.

I won't give away too much of the plot. Suffice to say that all the various ingredients of New England Puritanism - lust, violence, superstition, piety and madness - converge to produce some sense of closure. If you're looking for a truly happy ending, look elsewhere. This is not a conventional horror novel, or a conventional historical novel for that matter. But it is a powerful story, remarkably well told, and makes for a compelling read on a cold winter's evening. Oh, and it is a ghost story.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Ghost kicks Vampire ass

Those lovely and not at all sinister corporate types at Google have devised a new toy called Books Ngram viewer. It lets you graph the number of reference to a particular word or phrase over time in many published works. When I typed in ghost, vampire, zombie and werewolf I found that ghost is way ahead, but vampire put a right old spurt on lately. Teenagers, eh? Poor old zombie and werewolf didn't get a look in. I couldn't include mummy for obvious reasons.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Dr Terror's House of Horrors

WARNING - CONTAINS SPOILERY THINGS!

Having just watched this film (on rented DVD) for the first time since the Seventies, I was pretty impressed. It really is one of the best portmanteau horror movies. It doesn't match up to DEAD OF NIGHT, but what could? Indeed, it's interesting to note that, while similar in some ways, the two films do have a radically different approach to storytelling. But first, a ludicrously OTT trailer.



DTHH takes the basic format of a group of people thrown together who are told a series of spooky tales by a mysterious stranger (Peter Cushing's eponymous Tarot reader). Milton Subotsky penned the five tales, and their titles show that subtlety was not on his mind. We start with 'Werewolf', move on to 'Creeping Vine', meet the 'Voodoo God', clutch at the 'Disembodied Hand', and finally get in a flap about the 'Vampire'. Lest I sound too facetious, these are all well-done. Even the weakest story, the killer plant, is enjoyable enough. And each tale moves the overall sense of doom a little nearer in a clever way.

DEAD OF NIGHT, you may recall, contains a couple of stories - the golfers and the little girl at the party - which are not especially horrific. These provide a breather, or at least padding, before the nightmarish finale, in which we move from the ventriloquist dummy story into the final revelation. DTHH contains no 'breathers' (thought the voodoo story is partly played for laughs - and not very successfully). Instead, each story's protagonist is a little more guilty than the last - a little more deserving of some grim fate.

Thus in 'Werewolf' the character's only transgression is to be born into the wrong family - one that comes saddled with a curse. In 'Creeping Vine' the ordinary family are taken aback to find an unsightly plant growing in their garden when they return from holiday, and decide to kill it. In the voodoo story Roy Castle's musician steals a sacred tune, having been warned to leave well alone. When we come to the fourth story, Christopher Lee's arrogant art critic commits a truly monstrous crime and his punishment seems well-deserved, albeit a tad Old Testamenty. And finally, Subotsky takes the idea of responsibility full circle, with Donald Sutherland's undeniably good and innocent doctor presented with a hideous choice.

All in all, DTHH stands up well, not least thanks to Freddie Francis' direction and the stellar cast. It's always a pleasure to watch Lee and Cushing, especially when neither is being typecast. If you haven't seen this Brit horror classic,  make a point of seeking it out.

For me it brings back the thrill of being allowed to stay up late to see the film everyone would be talking about at school the next day.

Monday, 13 December 2010

It's always in the trees

Viewing Jacques Tourneur's classic take on an MR James story for the fourth or fifth time, I'm again impressed by how much is done with relatively little material. The leading man - Dana Andrews - comes across as a drunken lecher, while villain Karswell is far more likeable. The plot development is rather bitty. Then there's Mr Meek. Quite brilliant British silliness suddenly giving way to genuine weirdness.