Monday, 27 January 2014

Ghosties and Ghoulies

... and there's also at least one lang-legged beastie, plus more than a few bumps in the night. Phantasm Press, as I mentioned earlier, has been set up under the aegis of genre editor extraordinary Richard Dalby. This may, for aught I know, be because projects Richard had in mind for another publisher were put on permanent hold. Whatever the reason, though, it's a good move, and the first book from PP is certainly an enjoyable read.

As always, there's an interesting foreword that tells us a little about the author. The key point about the Francis C. Prevot's stories in Ghosties and Ghoulies is that they are very short. A bit of rudimentary arithmetic leads me to believe that the magazine in which they appeared - Brighter London, sounds ghastly - imposed a thousand word limit. This is very short indeed for a ghost story, or any kind of story. It's a tribute to Prevot's skill that few are outright duds, and some are very good.

Within the drastic limitations imposed upon him Prevot was obviously unable to emulate the writers he admired the most - M.R. James, Kipling, and R.H. Benson. There is no time to delineate character with any subtlety, or allow draw in the reader with descriptions of landscape, country houses and so forth. Nor is the Jamesian technique of careful clue placement really possible.Given all that (or rather, the absence of all that) what is left?

Well, Prevot was an ideas man. Some of his ideas are unoriginal, and as I worked my way through two dozen tiny tales I found myself checking off the inevitable subjects - haunted mirror, haunted picture, bricked up door, devil worship (the clue is in the title 'The Devil Worshipper'), human sacrifice, revenge from beyond the grave... But  to his credit Prevot manages to ring a few changes on familiar ideas, and even throws in a few that are quite original. He also grasped the importance of horror. While a few stories fall into the 'Alas! Poor ghost' theme, most are about men who go too far and meet a nasty fate.

For instance, 'The Galloper' has a whiff of Saki in its grim denouement. It concerns what we'd call a horse-whisperer. The twist is that the protagonist is a little too close to the world of the equine and meets a nightmarish end. There's a very weird and compelling vibe about this story, for all it's brevity. I can't imagine what the readers of Brighter London made of this:
'As soon as it was dusk Jimmy had gone to the stables, and had seen in the gloom of the place the face of a woman, half divine, half bestial; had seen her white shoulders gleaming and heard the impatient stamp of hooves, and a curious, horrible sound, half articulate.'
Also fun is 'The Skull'. The guest of an amateur archaeologist is rather bored by the latter's account of unearthing the eponymous head-bone, but discovers that the skull's owner is not quite as dead as they've both assumed. There's a rather modern horror-comedy feel to the description of the way the skull - and other body parts - are reanimated.

'The Watercolour Drawing' is a micro-Jamesian tale of a scholarly bachelor who, preoccupied with writing a book on art history, forgets that art has a more than intellectual meaning. In this and about a dozen other tales I was impressed by how well Prevot 'earns' the final shock, given the severe shortage of elbow room. The same goes for 'The Empty Box', which is a damn near perfect example of the Man Who Didn't Believe in That Sort of Nonsense genre.

Overall, it's an enjoyable little book, complete with original cover and nifty story headpieces by A. Wyndham Payne.. There's a touch of poignancy in the Afterword, a brief item on the ghost story Prevot wrote for The Bookman's Journal & Print Collector in 1919. In 'A Plea for the Ghost Story' he laments the fact that - at the time - leading authors had abandoned the supernatural 'to the tender mercies of feeble writers for feeble magazines'. False modesty, perhaps, as at his best Prevot was no mean practitioner of the genre.

At the moment of typing, I can't find the website given in the book, which is phantasmpress.co.uk. It doesn't seem to exist. Or I'm an idiot.* However, the book is available on Amazon, and from Waterstones (by order). And PP does have a real world address, which is:

6 Victoria Rd
Scarborough
YO11 1SD


*See link list to your right.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark



I have vague, somewhat confused memories of watching the BBC's ghost stories for Christmas. Back in the Seventies I was just old enough to watch them, but perhaps not old enough to appreciate them. I had no idea who M.R. James was (shocking, I know). It was only later that I came to the original stories and began to retrospectively grasp what it was I'd been watching, with a certain thrilled bafflement, about ten years earlier.

Spectral Press have produced a volume that would have been very valuable to my younger, spottier self. In it are all the M.R. James stories that were directed by Lawrence Gordon Clark, plus one that he would have liked to attempt. Seeing them listed on the contents page makes you appreciate just how well-served ghost story fans were. In his foreword Mark Gatiss points out that Clark, originally a documentary film maker, brought a 'stillness, a weird beauty, and a rather brilliant management of the ghostly shocks' to adaptations that have yet to be bettered. As sometimes happens, a fine telly tradition was created because a talented, energetic man wanted to share his enthusiasm.

In an informative introduction, editor Tony Earnshaw gives a detailed account of how Clark set out to create - with relatively little in the way of resources - short films that still stand up remarkably well today. It's clear that Clark assembled an excellent team behind the camera as well as recruiting some superb actors as his stars. One interesting point that had never occurred to me is that, as the stories went out late at night, there was often nothing to follow them. This meant there was no set length for the ghost stories, so Clark could let his script reflect the original narrative rather than have to indulge in padding or cutting. Thus his films varied in length from 32 to 50 minutes.

Tony Earnshaw  is also helpful on locations and the way that Clark kept each script relatively fluid, adapting it to suit a particular place. 'Firmly of the opinion that film is a visual rather than a dialogue driven medium—and heavily influenced by his hero, Alfred Hitchcock—Clark allowed his camera to tell the story. Dialogue, he felt, was merely an enhanced form of sound effect.' This explains why, at their best, Clark's films have the impact of the best silent movies.

Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book, though, are Clark's own observations on each film. Thus for the first, 'The Stalls of Barchester Cathedral' (1971), he writes about the great creative freedom that the BBC permitted its staff at that time. He could work 'uncluttered by the array of developers, script editors, executive producers and other indispensables who have since concretised in a great abscess round the system that is broadcasting today'.

By the time we get to 'Casting the Runes' Clark has moved on to ITV and is working on a script by Clive Exton. I was surprised to find that he considers the ending of this drastically updated version 'satisfyingly grim'. I thought it was a bit barmy. I also think it's a great pity that Basil Copper's script for 'Count Magnus' was never filmed, in part because of expense, but also because 'it was felt by some people in the BBC that we should attempt more modern ghost stories so the project was shelved'. Things were clearly becoming 'concretised' by that point.

The most substantial part of the book consists of transcripts of two interviews with Lawrence Gordon Clark that Tony Earnshaw conducted at the Halifax Ghost Story Festivals of 2010 and 2012. I was lucky enough to be present for the first of these. There's much to enjoy here, not least Clark's bold (and, for my money, not unreasonable) assertion that many Hammer films are 'very overlit and lacking in atmosphere'.

All in all, this is a very absorbing read. It's also a heartening reminder of how much can be achieved where creative freedom reigns, in television and elsewhere.

"The Christmas Ghost Stories of Lawrence Gordon Clark", Cover image ©  1971 - 2013 Graham Morris. Design by John Oakey.

Monday, 20 January 2014

Phantasm Press

Sneaking up on me, somewhat, is another small press publisher of vintage supernatural fiction. Rather excitingly, Phantasm Press is the brainchild of legendary editor Richard Dalby, an unrivalled expert on the ghost story. The first book from this new imprint is Ghosties & Ghoulies by F.C. Prevot. (The link takes you to Amazon UK - Phantasm does not seem to have a website as yet.)

According to the blurbette:
Francis C.Prevot's very rare collection of twenty-one short supernatural horror tales and vignettes, GHOSTIES AND GHOULIES, is here reprinted for the first time exactly ninety years since its original publication, together with all the pictorial and decorative headpieces by A.Wyndham Payne.


If anyone has any more information on Phantasm Press I'd be happy to share it. Or just put it into the comments section on this post.


Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Oldstyle Tales

A new publisher of supernatural fiction is always interesting, and this one looks intriguing.

OLDSTYLE TALES PRESS is an independent literary press which publishes edited anthologies of classic ghost stories, tales of the supernatural, horror novels, and Weird fiction, circa 1767-1939. Editions feature original illustrations, annotations, and introductory notes on each story or chapter.


FOUNDED in 2013, Oldstyle Tales Press is committed to producing affordable editions of the best supernatural, weird, and horror fiction produced in the English-speaking world before World War Two. While most anthologies and editions of horror fiction are either entirely lacking (or notably sparse) in their critical material or designed for professional use by literary scholars, Oldstyle Press strives to offer quality editions with informative-but-accessible critical material, an attractive horror aesthetic, and a guided narrative structure at an affordable price designed to attract and encourage readership.


FUTURE editions will also include Edwardian ghost stories, American horror stories, British and American weird fiction, and classic tales of terror. Some are commonly anthologized, but most of our tales are obscure gems specifically sifted through by the editor and annotated to bring the story, its language and references, to life.
Judging by prices on Amazon US, these editions are indeed affordable. Judging from the extremely impressive website, Oldstyle is committed to publishing 'the usual suspects' of weird fiction. This is also what Wordsworth does, of course, but perhaps they will spread their net a bit more widely and offer slightly posher volumes.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

The Cranes That Build the Cranes


Jeremy Dyson is best known as one of the comedy team The League of Gentlemen, who some produced brilliant radio and TV series. He is also co-writer of the dark comedy Psychoville*. Dyson is somewhat less well-known as an author, but he has short story collections and a novel, What Happens Now, under his belt. 


The Cranes That Build the Cranes (2009) is his second collection, and the reviews quoted on the cover liken the contents to the work of Saki, Iain McEwen, and Roald Dahl. That's an interesting range of heavy hitters, and gives some idea of the darkness and intelligence to be found within. Of the nine stories, all might be termed weird tales, and most have an element of the supernatural. I found it an uneven collection, but readable and remarkably varied, despite a marked absence of cranes.

For instance, the traditional ghost story, 'Out of Bounds', does indeed belong to the Dahl tradition of the nasty twist. But one might also point out that it's the sort of thing H.R. Wakefield did rather well - setting up a shock in a relatively short tale with a handful of characters. In this case the set up is a boarding school where three boys - one a bully, one easygoing, one an overweight victim - are left during the holidays. It's a simple story but manages to deliver a genuine frisson of old-school spookery.

'Michael' is another tale of a youngster confronting the supernatural, but this time it is a disturbed, self-harming adolescent. Again, a bullied boy is driven to the margins of the everyday in a bid to escape school and home, both equally unbearable. In the countryside he thinks he has found an island of solitude, but then he encounters a mysterious girl who poses a disturbing challenge. This is a subtle horror story that reminds you how it can be done - no blood and guts, but plenty of detail and atmosphere in a carefully-controlled narrative.

Altogether different and more ambitious is 'Yani' Day'. This asks the familiar question: 'What happens if a regular guy gets superpowers?' and puts a very British spin on it. Suffice to say that when a boring, friendless bookshop employee acquires the ability to kill anyone he likes, the result is not hugs and puppies. The overall feel of the story is nightmarish, for all that it's written in a realistic, almost anecdotal style. Dyson is an admirer of Aickman and this shows in the way he blends the utterly bizarre with the very mundane.

The power conferred by money and the callousness this often brings feature in several tales, not all of them supernatural. 'The Bear' sees what we used to call a yuppie seek out an unusual costume for a party that may be vital to his career. In a very Dahlian (Dahlesque?) fashion, he makes the basic error of going to a little shop run by an eccentric old gentleman, and then compounds his mistake by pissing said shopkeeper off. No spoilers, but I wasn't expecting the ending. It's a bit 'Twilight Zone' and all the better for it.

'The Coué' is somewhat reminiscent of Ray Bradbury's story 'The Jar', but instead of the latter's small-town carnival exoticism we are once again in the world of modern British grottiness - it's all 'dirty concrete and breezeblocks'. The plot concerns a dealer who specialises in obtaining unusual items. These curios are not the sort of thing you see on Bargain Hunt. If you know what a Hand of Glory is, you've got the general idea. Suffice to say that our hero does obtain the eponymous item for a client, and wackiness ensues.

Well, that's my take on The Cranes that Build the Cranes. It's the first book by Jeremy Dyson that I've read, but I doubt that it will be the last. Anyone expecting overt comedy will be disappointed, but there's enough grim wit here to keep the average fan or indeed resident of Psychoville turning the pages.

*I am totally wrong about this. See comment below.

A Terribly Strange Bed - The Weird Circle

A couple of posts down it's been pointed out that there aren't that many ghost stories focusing on four-poster beds. In fact, the only classic weird tale that's definitely bed-based is 'A Terribly Strange Bed' by Wilkie Collins. So here's an old-time radio version from a series that ran from 1943-45.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Hearts

Well, how does one go about introducing the young people of today to classic ghost stories? One way might be to offer them in the form of graphic novels, or comic strips as old folk like me tend to think of them. There's an excellent adaptation of an M.R. James story, 'Lost Hearts', to be found here. It's a bit tweaked and simplified, but the essential horror remains. Below you can see the first page, when Elliott (as the boy is called i.e. not Stephen) arrives at the home of 'Professor Abney'.

Hearts

Monday, 6 January 2014

Four Poster Peril!

A few regular news items contain something pertaining to the supernatural tale. Sometimes I search the BBC site for 'ghost' and almost invariably come across a weird little aside or reference. Today's is a cracker.

VisitBritain, the slightly annoyingly-named body responsible for promoting tourism in my fair homeland, has drawn up a list of Dos and Don'ts for hoteliers. And yes, with Germans it is indeed 'Don't mention the unfortunate events of the first half of the 20th century'.

But perhaps the weirdest and most charming bit of advice is not to put people from Hong Kong in four-poster beds, because they associate them with 'ghostly encounters'. The obvious question is, Why Hong Kong? Four-posters feature in any number of ghost stories; horror movies are chock-a-block with them. We all know they're a bit spooky. But they are also lovely period items of furniture.

It occurred to me that perhaps four-posters are uniquely Western, so that nobody in HK saw one before they clapped eyes on old Hammer films or Roger Corman adaptations of Poe stories. Or maybe a particular TV series is responsible. Who knows?

Anyway, I think we can be sure no Hong Kongers will be going near this place.

England's most haunted bedroom
Oo-er

Elizabeth Jane Howard, RIP



When a successful author dies, there are widespread tributes. Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923-2014) was undeniably successful thanks to her many mainstream literary novels, notably the the series that became the Cazalet Chronicles. Howard's short stories are, of course, a relatively minor part of her total output. But it's worth noting that it was as a collaborator with Robert Aickman in the collection We Are For the Dark that her work first saw print.

The complex relationship between Aickman and Howard, while interesting, is of debatable significance when considering either's work. But I can't help feeling the often disastrous interaction between Aickman's male characters and beautiful women must owe something to his affair with the undeniably beautiful Elizabeth. It's also at least possible that - given Aickman's propensity for basing his stories on dreams - a few of his characters are Howard-like. By this I mean they are 'well-bred' girls, the sort Aickman undoubtedly considered to be above the common ruck.

For instance, the tall and lovely Clarinda Hartley in 'Bind Your Hair' is described as having: 'very fair, very fine, very abundant hair, to which she plainly gave much attention; her face had interesting planes (for those who could appreciate them), but also soft curves, which went with her hair. She had a memorable voice: high-pitched, but gentle.'

Almost every picture I've been able to unearth of the young Elizabeth Jane Howard shows her as having in some way 'bound' her hair, which was indeed fair and abundant, as the above picture shows. Here she is with the young Kingsley Amis.



Amis and Howard married in the summer of 1965, but they began an affair in 1962, when Amis was still married to his first wife. It's not impossible that Aickman knew of this, and it was often said that Amis and Howard were not an obvious match. In 'Bind Your Hair' (1964) Aickman has Clarinda become engaged to a Dudley Carstairs, and everyone - Dudley included - is surprised to find her settling for him. And that's enough idle speculation.

It is of course for 'Three Miles Up' that Howard is best known to lovers of supernatural fiction. It is a very 'Aickmanesque' story, and indeed if you read Howard's fiction alongside Aickman's it seems clear that their styles are not too different. They are both detached, somewhat ironic, and rarely use emotive terms to describe the most intense or violent incidents. Who influenced who - if it's possible to be sure of such things - is of course a moot point.

Australian author Martin Cosby has his own tribute to Howard here. It was reading this that triggered my somewhat random thoughts above.

Saturday, 4 January 2014

Social Networkism

Happy New Year! Somewhat belated, I know, but it's the thought that counts. It occurred to me that I haven't mentioned (or at least, I can't recall mentioning) ST's presence on Facebook.

Supernatural Tales has a Facebook page. Sometimes interesting things appear on it. If you are a Facebooker, why not mosey along and join? It's all very informal.

In other news, just over one hundred years ago, Ambrose Bierce vanished in Mexico. I suspect we've seen the last of him.