Friday, 30 November 2012

Mr Valentine's Tales

Swan River Press in Dublin is publishing a volume of Selected Stories by the redoubtable Mark Valentine, one of the most erudite and entertaining writers currently producing supernatural fiction. Here is the blurb:

In St. Petersburg, amidst an uneasy truce with the revolution, there exists a secret trade in looted ikons. But who are the dark strangers seeking for the Gate of the Archangel? In the small town of Tzern, news arrives of the death of the Emperor; meanwhile a postmaster, a priest, a prophet and a war-wearied soldier watch the dawn for signs of the future. Constantinople: A quest for the lost faiths of the former Ottoman Empire leads a French scholar to believe that the strangest may also be the truest. On the edges of Europe, exiles and idealists meet in a café to talk of their hopes—while sinister forces begin to march. These stories, exquisitely told by Mark Valentine, are about individuals caught up in the endings of old empires—and of what comes next.

Leave Your Sleep

I'm enjoying this collection of R.B. Russell stories from PS Publishing. It has, however, led me once again to ponder the eternal, unanswerable question - what makes a successful supernatural tale? Not all of the stories here could be classed as supernatural in the conventional sense, but they all play fast and loose with the conventions of realistic narrative. But few qualify as ghost stories and some lie outside the roomier bounds of 'weird fiction'. And I can imagine people who insist on having all the plot threads tied up neatly getting rather cross with this book, because in most cases neat solutions are not what the story is about. Instead, the author offers imagery and ideas to stimulate the reader's imagination, much as a poet might do.

I can be reasonably sure that Ray Russell is drawing upon Continental or Latin American influences rather than the Anglo-American ghost/horror tradition. For instance, 'A Woman of the Party' is, on the face of it, an account of how the female protagonist's personal life is inextricably entangled with the machinations of a totalitarian state (which I took to be East Germany). However, one early incident suggests that something odd is going on - or rather, something odder than living in a society that plants cameras and microphones in your home. There is a time-twisting element, perhaps, but what the story's denouement suggested to me was that, under an oppressive regime, nothing natural to human beings can flourish. Even the most essential truths that we take for granted (in this case, that a child cannot be both born and unborn at the same time) are distorted or destroyed.

The opposite world view seems to prevail in 'The Red Rose and the Cross of Gold', in which a rather mundane account of two men sharing a flat turns into a murder non-mystery i.e. there's no doubt as to who is murdered. But the twist, if that's the right word for it, is that the killer can get away with it because reality can be adjusted to take account of his little problem. The idea that reality as we perceive it is more a matter of stage dressing and can be modified by an effort of will in the right conditions is also central to 'The Restaurant San Martin'. Again, I was left unsure as to the moral or indeed philosophical position I was supposed to adopt. Consider: if all we think of as the world is mere shadow play or illusion, why get worked up when someone is stabbed or shot? In a way this is anti-Lovecraftian fiction - in the world of the Mythos, reality is a roiling nightmare of horrific beings just waiting to pounce. But the 'real reality' can be seen very differently.

More conventional is 'Unconventional Exorcism', which has an almost Alan Bennett-like feel at times - an impression created, perhaps, by multiple references to macaroons. It works rather well as a ghost story using the familiar but not too common device of the medium who is confronted by the very real spirit of someone they had been stringing along with a load of old guff. The more substantial story, 'Leave Your Sleep', also offers ghostly antics, but is more powerful and enigmatic. It's a very successful recreation of a particular stage of childhood, when it becomes vital to keep secrets from grown-ups and be thought 'cool' by our peers. In the story, a boy staying with his grandparents is invited to join the games of the children next door - in a house that appears to be uninhabited. Here is a more conventional story, but one with enough original oddities to stick in the memory.

In several stories people have accidents or are otherwise jolted loose from conventional life and ways of seeing. Thus in 'The Dress' (which first appeared in ST) a woman is baffled by the place of her awakening and does not recognise herself in a bedroom mirror. The story can be read as a straight narrative of someone with obvious emotional problems, or as someone who falls 'under the spell' of a remarkable garment. I think that ambiguity serves the reader well, but again those who like everything neatly tied up might be a bit peeved.

And note, I've written all those paragraphs above without once using the word 'Aickmanesque'. However, Aickman's influence is apparent on Russell's work. Aickman's stories are formally conventional (no fancy typological tricks, somewhat staid prose) but defy the conventions of realistic narrative to some extent. The obvious problem with this - as someone said of free verse - is that it can be like playing tennis with the net down. Where anything is permitted, nothing is interesting. So the author of any story that rejects a realistic explanation (or indeed an unrealistic one, like 'the vampires did it') has set himself a double challenge - to entertain the reader while to some extent failing to satisfy the reader's pre-programmed expectations about what a good story is and does. I think Russell succeeds, more or less. But it's not an easy row to hoe, especially if you start out by doubting the objective existence of your agricultural implement.

Anyway, I have not finished the book yet. Expect a full review in ST#23.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Crickley Bulletin



I'm still enjoying The Secret of Crickley Hall on the jolly old BBC. With two out of three episodes down I'm beginning to see the light. I noted some familiar James Herbert ingredients, notably some tricksiness over identity, and the tendency of people with psychic powers to get in harm's way, swear off it all, then go and do it all over again. The ugly side of UK history is also a Herbertian trope, and here it's amply illustrated by the 'baddies', with their pro-Nazi sympathies. Oh, and there's sex. For good characters sex is honest and loving, even if prudes and hypocrites disapprove. For bad characters sex is always something furtive and sordid, and linked to some great wrongdoing. That's not always how it goes in a Herbert story, but it's the way to bet.

I can also see why Joe Ahearne wanted to adapt and direct. The story offers a powerful mixture of the claustrophobic (people in an isolated house with the ghost of a sadist) with the careful unfolding of two plot lines which both offer some good twists. The historical past, far from being dead, lives on and interacts with the present in real life, but sometimes the ghost story reminds us of this more powerfully than any 'realistic' plot device can. There's also some typical gallows humour and a sense of high stakes being played for that Ahearne brought to Ultraviolet and the less acclaimed, but still interesting Apparitions. As in those earlier series, there's the conviction that individual actions do matter, no matter how Quixotic they may seem, and no matter what sacrifices may be required. However, if you want to read Ahearne's own views on it all, they are blogged here.

Incidentally, for e-reader types, the script of episode one can be downloaded here. I find scripts sometimes cast interesting sidelights on what we've seen - or think we've seen. Here's the opening scene, with that familiar but very effective trope - the apparently innocent children's game with a menacing subtext.


EXT. CRICKLEY HALL - 1943 DAY 1 1

Six year old STEFAN runs from the big grey stone slab of

Crickley Hall, more institutional than residential.

Children singing.

CHILDREN

On the farm no poor rabbit

Comes to harm because I grab it

They jump and frolic whenever I go by

They know I help 'em to dodge the rabbit

pie!

A figure grabs him by the collar and lifts him off his feet.

Stefan kicks wildly in mid-air as he pivots to face his

tormenter. Terrified that it might be:

AUGUSTUS CRIBBEN. We don’t see his face yet.

CRIBBEN O.S.

You’re mine.

Stefan screams.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Ghost Stories on the talking-type wireless

This time of year is traditionally the season when BBC schedulers get out old boxes of stuff, rummage around a bit, and find some spooky stuff. Fortunately, some of this spooky stuff is pretty good. On Radio 4 Extra, for instance, each weekend - just after the stroke of midnight on Saturday - sees the rebroadcast of readings of some of Walter de la Mare's greatest hits. The first, 'All Hallows', is read by Richard E. Grant. The other stories (by various readers) are 'Crewe', 'Seaton's Aunt', 'The Almond Tree', and 'A Recluse'.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

The Secret of Crickley Hall

Joe Ahearne, best known to genre fans for his excellent Eighties series Ultraviolet, directs a brand-new adaptation of a James Herbert novel for the BBC. All a bit of a surprise to me, as I'd always assumed that Herbert is not the sort of modern novelist who sets pulses racing at the Beeb. But I have to say that The Secret of Crickley Hall is rather good. At least, the first episode proved sufficiently well-crafted and absorbing to keep me guessing and watching.

Telling two linked stories set in the present day and World War 2, the first episode managed to dodge the clichés of the genre yet also captured the authentic atmosphere of the traditional supernatural tale. Put simply, something bad happened to a nice family (no spoilers here) and this terrible event shaped the characters' reactions to strange occurrences at their new home. The cast is strong; David Warner and Douglas Henshall both get to play against type, and its nice to see youngsters like Maisie Williams (Arya in Game of Thrones) given credible characters. Indeed, there wasn't a false note in the first hour; it was an effective drama which happened to involve paranormal events.

All in all, it's heartening to see the BBC make a short serial solidly rooted in the great tradition of British ghostly fiction and put it on at 9pm on a Sunday. If this heralds a newfound enthusiasm for this sort of drama... Well, let's not get carried away.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Casting the Runes: the movie?

From our 'What? Really?' department comes news of a film based on M.R. James 'Casting the Runes', and directed by Joe Dante, famed for such much-loved Eighties fare as The Howling and Explorers. Steve Duffy, one of the top-flight authors who gave early issues of ST a lot of credibility, just drew my attention to this:

When up-and-coming actor Jake Harrington inexplicably hurls himself in front of an oncoming subway train, celebrity gossip blogger Mark Dunning smells a story in Harrington's connection to self-help guru Simon Karswell. What Dunning isn't prepared for is the secret behind Karswell's motivational-speaker success: a command of dark occult forces that reveals his following to be more cult than therapy. Harrington had insisted that Karswell had summoned something with tools he called "runes," raising a being that was stalking Harrington with intent to kill.

Karswell makes it clear to Dunning that he doesn't want him pursuing the story, and that he could "cast the runes" on Dunning just as he did on Harrington - and Dunning is sufficiently unnerved to question it himself.

That is, until Lila James, the famed, gorgeous and grieving actress girlfriend of Harrington, turns to Dunning for help: she knows Harrington wanted out of Karswell's cult, and Karswell was unwilling to let him go. Now, she fears that she too is trapped, and sees in Dunning an ally in helping her escape. Unable to resist both her and the story possibilities, he agrees to help.

But Karswell isn't eager to let such a jewel in his cult's crown leave so easily - now, Dunning will learn what Jake Harrington learned before him: when Simon Karswell casts the runes, a clock starts ticking. Three days after Dunning receives a strange message from Karswell, the thing that came for Harrington will come for him... and with every second, it's getting closer - unless Dunning can find a way to stop it, and cast the runes back on Karswell.

Interweaving elements of a noir crime tale with the chills of an occult thriller in the tradition of THE OMEN, CASTING THE RUNES is a contemporary spin on the classic story by M.R. James, employing elements not only from that tale, but offering as well a veritable greatest hits of James's classic nightmares - including legendary masterworks like "Oh, Whistle and I'll Come You, Lad" and "The Mezzotint." Nobody made spectral monsters like M.R. James, and the best are all here. Parading his most chilling visions across the screen, CASTING THE RUNES brings the greatest ghost stories - and the greatest ghost story writer - of all time, firmly into the twenty-first century.
Now that looks pretty good to me. The blurb at least shows appreciation of James' work and it makes perfect sense to flesh out the not-really-feature-length title story with some other ingredients. The film is listed as in development by the imdb site, with a release date of 2013. Of course, a project can be stuck in development hell for years, if not decades, so we can believe in Casting the Runes when it's actually, erm, cast. But this is all very interesting.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

'Ilona'

Another little trailer for the next issue of ST, no. 23, which is due out by next April (probably). 'Ilona' is a short-short story by leading Queen Victoria impersonator Tina Rath, and concerns the tribulations of a hard-working employee of Britain's famous National Health Service. Like many thousands of others, Ilona has come to England from Eastern Europe to take up a low-paid manual job. Drudgery is the key word, here, as our protagonist cleans corridors, far from the light of day. But what else might be going on in Ilona's mop-centric world?
She mopped languidly. She stopped to rest her back. And when the Supervisor reappeared towards the official end of her shift the long corridor was not even half finished. 
“Oh, dear!” she exclaimed, with barely concealed pleasure. “ I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to finish this floor before you go off.”

Any of the other ladies would have launched into a voluble account of the unpredictability of night buses, the danger of the night-time streets, the anxiety of her hubby if she wasn't home on the dot, finishing with a half plea, half threat relating to the union. But Ilona only bent her head and said, meekly, “I finish it.”
Of course, it's not just the floor that's finished.

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

The Sea Change & Other Stories

A new book from Swan River press showcases the short fiction of Helen Grant, two of whose stories appeared in early issues of ST. One of those stories, 'The Sea Change', gives its title to the collection; it's a powerful and enigmatic tale of a diver who becomes obsessed with the wreck of an ancient ship, and undergoes a strange and unpleasant tranformation.

The contents are as follows:

Grauer Hans
The Sea Change
The Game of Bear
Self Catering
Nathair Dhubh
Alberic de Mauléon
The Calvary at Banská Bystrica

Two stories, 'The Game of Bear' and 'Alberic de Mauleon', were produced for competitions in the Ghosts & Scholars newsletter, and I can testify to their excellence. Sadly, though, Brian Showers of Swan River tells me this book is unlikely to be out in time for Christmas - however, it will be published early in the New Year.

The picture below is the excellent cover by Jason Zerillo.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Review: The Ghosts and Scholars Book of Shadows

At the end of the last century (which now seems quite a while back) Ghosts & Scholars ceased publication as a fiction magazine and became a twice-yearly newsletter dedicated to topics M.R. Jamesian. Over the last couple of years, however, editor Ro Pardoe has published a number of short stories, after inviting readers to finish off or flesh out ideas (such as the mysterious 'game of bear') that James abandoned or never got round to fleshing out. The best stories were published in the newsletter and proved very popular.

So successful were these competitions that - to write entirely new prequels or sequels to any of M.R. James' published tales. A dozen of these new stories were selected by Ro Pardoe for publication by Robert Morgan's Sarob Press in a fine edition with an excellent cover by Paul Lowe, showing the thing of ''Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You My Lad'' wafting its way up the shingle.

The stories gathered here fall into two obvious categories - prequels and sequels - and most authors favour the latter. There is one other important subdivision, though. While most authors make it clear which of James' works is being referenced, some keep the reader guessing - and I won't give the game away here. 

The winner of the Ghosts & Scholars competition is a sequel, 'Quis Est Iste?' by Christopher Harman - hence the cover illustration, which serves for both James' story and this sequel. Here we discover just what 'rude Mr Rogers' got up to when he returned to the scene of Professor Parkins' worst ever vacation. There is a strange, nightmarish quality about the story, and Harman leads the reader to a climax that offers something new and disturbing, while keeping to the spirit of the original. 

Among the prequels are two compelling longer tales. Helen Grant offers a surprising insight into the early life of 'Canon Alberic de Mauleon', surprising your humble reviewer with an old-school plot device. A different old school features in 'Between Four Yews', in which Reggie Oliver provides a very solid and absorbing revenge narrative. The comparatively slight 'A School Story' might have been inserted into Oliver's tale as a relatively minor episode. 

Some of the shorter stories take one ingredient from an original story and explore possibilities. Thus Jacqueline Simpson, in 'The Guardian', considers how modern scholars might get Abbott Thomas' treasure without incurring any nasty penalties. Her solution is ingeniously straightforward. Very different is 'Anningley Hall. Early Morning' by Rick Kennett. Here the author proposes a rational but still startling reassessment of the story within the story in 'The Mezzotint'. A more straightforward sequel is 'Malice' by David A. Sutton, in which an inanimate object is deemed to be responsible for a terrible domestic tragedy. But which object is really to blame?

The story 'Two Doctors' is not very popular even with James addicts, and I was surprised to see Mark Valentine tackle it. In 'Fire Companions' we are granted a glimpse of what may be the central drama of that obscure tale. But Valentine also gives us a well-crafted insight into the mental torment of the villain of the piece, who did not really profit from his dabbling in the dark arts.

'The Mezzotaint', by John Llewellyn Probert, is very different again. Here we have a rather jolly variation on the old horror film setup, involving two doctors discussing just how deranged a patient appears to be. And, as we all know, in this setup the apparently mad patient has some insight into a rather unpleasant truth. Uniquely, this story offers a sci-fi twist to the idea of living pictures, playing fast and loose with the idea of the moving image as the source of horror.

Among the stories where the original tale is kept obscure till the end is Derek John's 'Of Three Girls and Their Talk', which begins as a period tragic-comedy but soon moves into strange territory. A conventional folk belief, and the advice of a 'wise woman', prove fateful to the eponymous young ladies, whose only real crime is to want to marry a rich husband and avoid the workhouse. In C.E. Ward's 'The Gift', by contrast, the wealth that is being sought might well help with the upkeep of a rural parish. A somewhat over-curious clergyman pays a heavy price when he ignores some fairly explicit warnings. In both cases the author's plan is to keep the reader guessing as to which Jamesian horror is lurking offstage, and they both manage very well.

Sometimes the original story offers more of a jumping off point for a rather different kind of tale. Thus in Louis Marvick's slightly Gothic 'The Mirror of Don Ferrante', the auctioning of Mr Karswell's possessions puts into circulation an item that might have been better left in storage. As with most of the stories here, the style is not Jamesian, but the careful construction and use of an ingenious device show his influence.

The final story, 'Glamour of Madness', takes its cue from a telling but easily-overlooked detail in 'A Vignette'. Building on this central idea, Peter Bell offers a rather harrowing account of a fixed idea that comes to possess a girl, and provides a satisfyingly Jamesian explanation for her fate. As with most of the longer tales, this one has a framing narrative. But Bell also prefaces it with a quote from M.R. James that, I think, sums up the continuing appeal of his best stories. It begins:

'Are there here and there sequestered places where some curious creatures still frequent...?'

In this book the authors take us to various sequestered places, and point to what might seem first to be merely shadows. This is, I think, a must for admirers of M.R. James, not least because it shows how influential his ideas about the ghost story still are.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

A fact or two about the next ST

At the moment I'm sort of working on ST#23, due out next spring (i.e. before April). One of the authors in what is frankly a galaxy of talent is Iain Rowan. A thriller writer who dabbles in horror and the supernatural,  Iain has undertaken the distinctly challenging task of writing one very short story for every week of the year. He does this by the perfectly simple method of picking a song, then writing a story to fit the song in some way. The results are here.

The story that Iain submitted to ST, and which you'll be able to read next year, is entitled 'The Singing', and it doesn't seem to require any proofing because he's one of those careful writers who takes punctuation and such very seriously. Also, it's a good story. In fact, it's the sort of eerie fantasy that might have been written by any really good short story writer in the middle years of the last century.

Set on an unnamed but probably Hebridean island at some unspecified time (but probably before electricity), 'The Singing' is the tale of what happens after a mysterious stranger is washed ashore. At first it seems that the man is mute, as all the islanders' questioning fails to elicit a word from him. But then he is taken to the chapel, and something strange and wonderful happens. Needless to say, when wonderful things happen, not everyone is delighted. All in all, it's a poetic and mysterious tale, but one that works as an artistic whole.

Iain Rowan's website is here.






Saturday, 10 November 2012

Nunkie News

Nunkie Productions, fronted by the excellent Robert Lloyd Parry, is on the road again with a 'Black Pilgrimage' of M.R. James shows. This autumn Robert is offering the waiting masses 'Count Magnus' and 'Oh Whistle...'.

By the magic of Facebook, I also have news of next year's shows. Let me hand you over to Roger:

For those of you who live in or near London, Nunkie is making a rare trip within the M25 in early 2013 - the 18, 19 and 20th January will see 'Count Magnus' and 'A Warning to the Curious' performed at the Rosemary Branch Theatre in Islington, a really nice theatre above a really nice pub.
You can book tickets here http://www.rosemarybranch.co.uk/#/count-magnus/4570308970
please spread the word...

There'll also be a run in The Brewery Theatre, Bristol in February - contact me for now if you need more details.

Also 3 nights at the Leper Chapel in Cambridge in January - again, reservations for the time being can be made by emailing me.
And there's more. I almost emitted what the young folk call a 'skwee' when I read to the end of this bit...
New non- MRJ show
In 2013 Nunkie will at last be breaking free from the shackles of M R James. In a collaboration with the Lowry Theatre in Salford and Harrogate Theatre, I shall be doing a new one man show based on H G Wells's sci-fi classic 'The Time Machine.' This will première in June. Watch this space for more news...
'The Time Machine' is one of my essential books - I reread it every year or so. Of course, now I see that it's an obvious choice for a one-man show. A wonderful prospect. Perhaps Robert is just going to do shows based on all my favourite books? Maybe I should send him a list, save the mucking about.

Let's round off with a quick trailer for one of Nunkie's DVDs (ideal Christmas presents, I think).

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Various bits of Stokerism...

Well, obviously there's all that stuff about Dracula...


But there's also The Jewel of the Seven Stars (aka Curse of the Blood from the Mummy's Tomb Doom Sort of Thing)


And there's Dracula (working under an assumed name)...


Then there's The Lair of the White Worm, which was weird till Ken Russell got his mitts on it, whereupon it became delightfully loopy... Ooh, look, it's Hugh Grant!


So, Happy Birthday, Bram Stoker. 


Bram Stoker´s 165th Birthday - Dracula Google Doodle

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

His Last Case

I like to bring you updates of what ST authors are up/down/sideways to these days. Stone Franks (yes, it's a nom de plume) wrote a tale of lycanthropy for ST#14, and has now published a tale of detection for the Kindle.

Not sure what His Last Case is about, but from the blurb I detect a hint of Sherlock Holmes spoofery:

Fresh from the Case of the Forced Coprophagia-By-Proxy Protagonist, Snowdonia Browne -Amateur Detective investigates mysterious and baffling slayings in a coastal resort. Has the gentleman sleuth met his match this time? Only snuff, eastern mysticism, and cunning gadgetry will decide.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Call for Submissions - Tartarus Press

I mentioned last month that World Fantasy Award-winning Tartarus are calling for submissions to a special profits-go-to-charity anthology called Dark World. Well, let me add that Tartarus are also seeking submissions for the latest volume in their regular anthology series, Strange Tales IV. So here are two opportunities for you writer types.

For the Dark World anthology, which is being edited by Tim (scion of the house of Ray and Rosalie), the details are as follows:
Subject matter and style : Tim would like to receive previously unpublished ghost stories (fiction) suitable for a general audience.
Although stories should offer more than a "pleasing terror", they should not contain anything too graphic or gratuitous.
Word count: Stories should be between 2,000 and 7,000 words.Closing date for submissions: 31st December, 2012.
Payment: Authors will receive two copies of the published book. Copyright remains with the author.  
Electronic submissions should be sent to QOTimSA@live.co.uk. He would prefer to receive your work as an attachment to an email.
For Strange Tales IV, this is what's wanted:
Subject matter and style : We would like to receive previously unpublished literary strange tales.
Word count: Stories should be between 2,000 and 10,000 words.
Closing date for submissions: 31st July, 2013.
Payment: Authors will receive three hardback copies of the published book.
Electronic submissions should be sent to rosalieparker@btinternet.com. We would prefer to receive your work as an rtf attachment.



Competition Time!

For no particular reason, here's an extract from a very well-known ghost story of yesteryear/yore. Published a long time ago, anyway, and much anthologised since. Name that story and the author!

I supposed my Hermes, as he led me to the lower regions, had had a little grog, but I said nothing, and followed him.

Swan River Press - cover art competition

I'm sorry, this one passed me by a bit and now you've only got till the 10th Nov to submit your cover art. Will it be enough? I don't know. If you name is something like Giotto or Leonardo you might be able to do a quick sketch. Anyway, the facts are here:

The winner's artwork will adorn the cover of the Sampler for first half of 2013. Artwork dimensions should be 198 mm x 129 mm (oriented portrait, as opposed to landscape), and in keeping with the Swan River Press aesthetic.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Congratulations!

Tartarus Press, one of the best-known and most respected small press outfits in the UK, has won a World Fantasy Award. It's about time, too, as they've been producing excellent books since the Nineties. More news of awards here.

It's also worth noting that Alan Garner (The Owl Service, among others) and George R.R. Martin (Game of Thrones) received Lifetime Achievement Awards. Both writers rose to prominence when I was a lad, so it's rather heartening to see them achieve official Grand Old Man status, especially since both are still producing new works.