Monday, 27 February 2012

Prequels/Sequels

Sarob Press has announced a new volume of stories, consisting of the winners of the Ghosts & Scholars competition to write a story linked to any of M.R. James' tales. It's an all-star line-up of authors and no mistake. The prequel/sequels are as follows:

“Alberic de MaulĂ©on” by Helen Grant (“Canon Alberic's Scrap-book”)
“Anningley Hall, Early Morning” by Rick Kennett (“The Mezzotint”)
“The Mezzotaint” by John Llewellyn Probert (“The Mezzotint”)
“Quis est Iste” by Christopher Harman (“Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad”)
“The Guardian” by Jacqueline Simpson (“The Treasure of Abbot Thomas”)
“Between Four Yews” by Reggie Oliver (“A School Story”)
“The Mirror of Don Ferrante” by Louis Marvick (“Casting the Runes”)
“Fire Companions” by Mark Valentine (“Two Doctors”)
“Of Three Girls and of Their Talk” by Derek John (“Wailing Well”)
“The Gift” by C.E. Ward (“The Experiment”)
“Malice” by David A. Sutton (“The Malice of Inanimate Objects”)
“Glamour of Madness” by Peter Bell (“A Vignette”)

Friday, 24 February 2012

Stamp of Distinction

So, M.R. James finally gets his own British stamp. (Being British, it does not indicate its country of origin - such was the confidence of empire when postage stamps were introduced that it was assumed everyone would know.) Anyway, this is what it looks like, courtesy of Stamp Magazine:



Sad to note that the writer for Stamp Magazine claims that MRJ wrote 'The Casting of the Runes'. Perhaps this information comes from the Royal Mail, or maybe it's down to inept Googling. Tsk tsk, young people today...

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Short Review - Flame & Other Enigmatic Tales

As promised a while ago, I've perused the latest Sarob Press release - a collection of two novellas and four short stories by the veteran writing partnership of Len Maynard and Mick Sims. While there's nothing new about such teamwork, especially in the field of ghostly/horror fiction, it is quite unusual nowadays.

The first novella, 'Double Act', explores what can be one of the murkiest facets of showbiz - the comedy partnership. In the standard double act there's a clown and a straight man, though the conventions are sometimes flipped around - Morecambe and Wise famously took Abbott and Costello's approach and reversed it,with the tall, apparently 'serious' one becoming the clown. In 'Double Act' the straight man - who is also the duo's writer - dies, leaving the clown (a penurious compulsive gambler) with an uncertain future. Things become even more tricky when it emerges that someone, or Some Thing, is killing people linked to the now-defunct duo of Coker and Hass. Is it the ghost of Charlie Hass, or something altogether stranger?

As a novella 'Double Act' works rather well, especially in evoking the spirit of old-style music hall entertainers. Internal evidence (Eric Sykes and Galton and Simpson are up-and-coming writers) places the story in the mid-Fifties. If I have one reservation it's that some of the characters are rather wooden, and I did wonder why there was no reference to the threat from television, which would soon put paid to a lot of live entertainment. But these are minor quibbles. The plot is well-constructed and the finale, following a series of revelations about Charlie Hass' private life, is effective.

The first of the short stories, 'Serenity', is altogether different in feel. A rather ineffectual man, Jona Lewis, takes early retirement and finds himself at a bit of a loose end. Then he bumps into an old friend who invites him for a stay in the country. This a very traditional opening, of course, but it leads to a far from conventional denouement. This reader was certainly foxed but also satisfied by a conclusion that shuns shocks in favour of a strange, but oddly moving, revelation.

Different again is 'Jealousy', in which the authors return to showbusiness, but this time in a modern tale of black magic. Reading it, I was reminded of the Brian Clemens' series Thriller, which screened in the early Seventies. Like the best of those dramas, 'Jealousy' proceeds from the mundane to the truly weird via a series of carefully calculated incidents. The finale, which takes place in St Paul's Cathedral, has a distinctly cinematic feel.

'Assignment' is part of a series of stories about Department 18, a kind of government dirty tricks outfit dedicated to the occult and/or paranormal. Perhaps because I've never read any of the early Department 18 tales I found this one tougher going than the others. But it is quite effective, not least in its description of a demonic entity that recalls the visitants encountered by some of M.R. James' protagonists.

The second novella, 'Flame', is a rather exotic 'wide screen' story of a tribe of long-lived Japanese witch-beings who have the enviable ability to steal talent from ordinary mortals. The Tashkai, as they're called (and I haven't Googled to find out if they are a 'real legend' or not) certainly make a change from vampires. Again, we're in English country house horror territory, which gives 'Flame' a slightly old-fashioned feel. That's not by any means a bad thing, though, and the Tashkai's method of extracting talent from and then silencing their victims is certainly memorable.

Overall, this is another classy production from Sarob, and comes (of course) with top-notch cover and internal artwork by Paul Lowe.


Tuesday, 21 February 2012

The Woman in Black



Yesterday I went with a friend to the Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle to see - well, what? An adaptation of Susan Hill's novel? A new vehicle for Daniel Radcliffe? An example of British 'heritage cinema', complete with steam trains, vintage Rolls Royce and lots of lovely coastal landscape? In a way TWIB is all of these, and of course it is also a new Hammer film. But is it an enjoyable celluloid ghost story?

My answer is a qualified yes. TWIB is not as good as last year's The Awakening, arguably because the latter was always conceived as a film. Susan Hill's take on the traditional ghost story is deeply 'literary' in that it involves a lot of musing by a man poking about in an old house. There is no dialogue, only inner narrative, for quite long periods. The stage play gets round this problem by an ingenious bit of very stagey trickery. The film takes the route more travelled and essentially deploys Asian horror shock tactics.

What of the actual story? Screenwriter Jane Goldman preserves the core of Hill's plot and of course the setting of Eel Marsh House. But much is changed. Arthur Kipps is now a widower and single father, his wife having died in childbirth. As some reviewers have noted, Radcliffe seems rather young and 'undamaged' for this kind of role. But it does at least explain why he persists in trying to sort out the late Mrs Drablow's papers instead of simply fleeing. Kipps' depression has put his job in danger. No workplace counselling in the gold old days. He is on a final warning from his firm - his career is on the line, and he must get the job done.

Fortunately he has some help from wealthy local Sam Daly, played by Ciaran Hinds. Hinds is one of the best actors we've got, and shows it here with a fine, understated performance. He too has lost a child, and his wife (the excellent Janet McTeer) is more than dabbling in spiritualism. Scenes with either or both Daly's do inevitably draw attention to Radcliffe's limitations as an actor, but he's not the first Hammer lead to be a bit of a cypher. A few people walked out of the cinema during the supposedly gripping scenes in Eel Marsh House. I suppose that ten minutes spent watching the former Harry Potter trying to emote amid Victorian mechanical toys did not strike them as entirely riveting.

Unfortunately this weakness of the central character is pointed up rather starkly by Jane Goldman's very drastic revision of Hill's ending. Suffice to say that, while satisfying overall, I don't think TWIB will be seen as a classic. I suspect that Nigel Kneale's television adaptation (which was much more faithful to the novel) has the edge.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Burnistoun - Lovecraftian Sketch


HP Lovecraft's characters never thought to get the council round to sort out their eldritch horrors.

Thursday, 16 February 2012

A pint at the Wicker Pub

Put another way, the pub that features in the classic Seventies horror movie The Wicker Man is up for sale.

In the movie, Ellangowan Hotel in Creetown, near Newton Stewart, was the fictional Green Man pub and had actress Britt Ekland as a barmaid. Plockton, Ayrshire and Skye also featured in the film starring Edward Woodward and Christopher Lee. The nine-bedroom hotel in Dumfries and Galloway has been put on the market for offers of about £200,000.


Ellangowan Hotel. Pic: Colliers International
Britt Ekland no longer pulls pints

By an odd coincidence, the town of Newton Stewart was one of the places in Scotland where my family holidayed in the late Sixties. (I live in the North East of England, which makes Scotland easier to get to than London, say, and much more accessible than Wales or Cornwall.) Anyway, at Newton Stewart I spent a week in a guest house that was once visited by the young Edgar Allan Poe. So that small part of the Scots lowlands has quite a horror heritage.

Flowerbank Guest House
Flowerbank House - Poe slept (or was insomniac) here

Monday, 13 February 2012

R-Point - ghosts in Vietnam

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It's not every day that I pause a rented DVD to rush to my laptop and look up some actual FACTS on the interwebs. But in the case of R-Point I had to be sure that what I was seeing wasn't some weird distortion of history. Because this film is about South Korean soldiers in the Vietnam War. It's become so natural to think of Vietnam was a war waged by Americans that the presence of various allied forces on the southern side rarely comes up. But, as I found out, some 300,000 Korean troops were sent to Vietnam.

This film follows one fictitious unit as they set out to investigate a far-from-routine situation. The trailer above gives away a crucial plot twist, I'm afraid, but it does give you some idea of what happens. Essentially we're in 'lost patrol' country, with the grid reference of the title slap bang in the middle of a sacred (or cursed) site.

The basic premise is familiar enough. In ancient times Chinese invaders massacred the locals and threw their bodies in a lake (long since dried up). It is bad luck, to say the least, for foreign soldiery to intrude but - predictably enough - first the French, the then the Americans, and finally the South Koreans all do the wrong thing. The film is quite well structured but inevitably feels a bit tired and predictable during the early scene-setting bits - we've seen this kind of thing so often. In our gaggle of troops there's a brilliant but troubled officer, a hard-ass sergeant, a misfit, a coward, a quiet one, a joker... You get the picture.

When the unit arrives at R-Point they find the remains of a French colonial mansion (or something like it) and weird stuff happens. I admit that, while I enjoyed some individual scenes, I was never especially taken with the characters and felt the overall plot logic didn't quite hang together. The ending, while powerful in its way, didn't make a lot of sense to me. And, again, the final 'twist' is so predictable that it's more of a minor crinkle.

Overall, then, it's a fairly average war movie enlivened by the presence of ghosts. The ghosts are well handled, though, offering a few decent shocks, and an early combat scene is a fine example of how to do this sort of thing on a tight budget. I'd award R-point three stars out of five - watchable, certainly, but a movie that promises more than it delivers.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Flame and Other Enigmatic Tales



Just received, a new volume from Sarob Press. The name Sarob is recommendation enough, as they always produce excellent volumes by first-rate authors. I hope to post a review shortly, but in the meantime you can check out Sarob's blog here, from which I've culled a few details.

Maynard Sims: Flame & other enigmatic tales
Six darkly enigmatic and chilling stories make up Maynard Sims fourth Sarob Press collection – their first since Falling Into Heaven (2004). Here you will find two novellas – the sequel to their well-received novella “Moths” (see Echoes of Darkness) and a spooky tale of life and death – and what comes after – set in and around the variety theatre of the 1950s. There are also four shorter but no less haunting tales – one of which is a new “Dept 18” adventure. Five of the six stories are original to this collection and the sixth has been fully revised. 
Len Maynard & Mick Sims are the authors of the novels Shelter, Demon Eyes, Black Cathedral and Night Souls and the Sarob Press collections Shadows At Midnight (1999), Echoes of Darkness (2000) and Falling Into Heaven (2004). 
Stories: “Double Act” “Serenity” “Jealousy” “Assignment” “Fallen” & “Flame”
With an afterword by Maynard Sims. Illustrations by Paul Lowe. 
Limited Edition Hardcover. Printed Boards. Edition limited to 150 hand numbered copies.
Limitation will be reviewed if pre-publication interest suggests a larger print run is appropriate.
PRICE
UK: UK £22.50 Europe: 27,50 euros USA & Rest of World: US $39.50
It looks like a darn good read, to me - ideal for the winter evenings, as we await the return of spring.

And please note, Sarob will shortly be publishing a collection by Peter Bell. This will include 'eight Jamesian ghost stories (three previously unpublished)', which sounds like a treat. Peter also informs me that Swan River Press in Dublin is also publishing a collection of his work. It's always satisfying to see an ST author advance to that 'quality hardback' stage.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Knock, Knock

S.P. Miskowski, whose story 'A.G.A.' will appear in ST21, can be heard online, reading from her first novel. The extract, 'Don't Wander Too Far Into the Forest', is from the intriguingly-titled Knock, Knock. Some of her work can be found on Amazon UK here.