Friday, 28 March 2014

'Haunting Julia'

Last night I saw an amateur production of this Alan Ayckbourn play at my local theatre (it's just up the road). It was a very enjoyable evening. I've always liked Ayckbourn's work, but this is the first time - to my knowledge, at least - that he's written a ghost story.

A bereaved father, an ex-boyfriend, and a self-styled psychic meet at a house where a teenager committed suicide twelve years before. The house is now a small museum dedicated to Julia, a musical prodigy who was composing from early childhood. But, as strange voices appear on tapes, and one half of the room becomes chillingly cold, can we be sure that Julia ever left?

Suffice to say that it works well, and makes for interesting comparisons with Conor McPherson's approach, especially 'Shining City' and 'The Weir'.



The play is very English in its central premise - not the ghost, but the idea that creativity is baffling and somewhat suspect to 'normal' people. Julie, the girl prodigy, never appears (to the audience, at least) but is perfectly depicted as child-like, lonely, acting like one possessed by rather than blessed with talent. Yes, there are some great moments of wit and the audience laughed, but it's also a moving study of how little we know others and how much we need from them. If you get the chance to see this play, in any kind of production, I'd recommend giving it a try. Here's another production video.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Three New Ghost Stories by Helen Grant

The ghost story's natural habitat is the marginal, the ephemeral, the modest publication. Well, that's my feeling - not sure why. Perhaps it's because, when I started reading ghost stories I acquired a lot of tatty old paperbacks, and a similarly large pile of chapbooks in various stages of repair. Which brings me to Ghost Stories of Innerpeffray, three tales by Helen Grant. The stories were written about, and read in, the public library of Innerpeffray, and have now been published as a chapbook. Ideal reading for chaps! And ladies, too, of course. It costs £5 plus postage, which seems quite reasonable.

You can hear Helen read one of the stories (for free!) here. I like it.


Thursday, 13 March 2014

Here with the Shadows

The first word of the first story in this book is Jewel.

It's the name of a character, but also seems apposite given that this collection is a diadem of strange, luminous tales. A diadem found in a dusty attic, perhaps, by someone who has not had a wonderful life. 

Tem's characters are beset by the past in some form, and as a result they often function rather ineptly in the present. Thus in 'Back Among the Shy Trees' a son returns to his parents' home and rediscovers his childhood. It is a horror story, but one that could never be a horror movie because almost everything significant occurs in the protagonist's mind. He is someone who owns no books and watches no television, but 'always read the newspaper religiously, front to back. It explained the world' - the last of a series of deftly-placed revelations that reveal a damaged soul.

Tem wears his erudition and his influences lightly, but anyone familiar with the weird genre will spot nods to Charles L. Grant, among many others. The traditional 'tale of terror' is alive and well, but transformed here into something that is of its time and yet oddly timeless. Thus in 'Est Enim Magnum Chaos' a group of older men make the familiar deal - those who die will try to contact the others from The Other Side. The story is oddly optimistic, a good example of an 'anti-horror' story that works.

That said, there are no happy families within these pages. In 'The Still, Cold Air', the prodigal Russell takes possession of his late parents' home, having let them down and sponged off them for years. The description of his exploration and his realisation that he may not be alone in what is literally a tumbledown home is masterly stuff. There is a touch of Walter de la Mare about the feel of this and other tales, but Tem is more direct. There is a cold clarity in his depiction of people and places.

Tem clearly loves old houses and the stories they contain or suggest. 'G is for Ghost' sees a man who has lost all his loved ones begin to gut a Victorian home on behalf of a wealthy young people. Once a builder, Lewis is now unable to do anything but destroy the old. He finds a manuscript in the fabric of the house. It is the story of a ghost child. This tale within the tale is unfinished, and it's debatable whether the revelation of someone else's grief helps Lewis come to terms with his own. 

Admirable touches of weird humour are subtly placed here and there, but wit comes to the fore in a few cases. The absurd Raymond in 'Breaking the Rules' tries to follow every superstition he is aware of, and lives a life that hampers his social life more than a little. His attempt to woo a young lady does not go well, but perhaps this is down to the unseen presence of his mother? There's a distinct Twilight Zone vibe to this one, and to 'Telling', in which an artist's search for a perfect house leads to a clever variation on the haunted picture theme. The story is doubly effective because it's told from the point of view of the artist's hapless lover, who can't help but share her fate because, by falling for her, he can no longer 'tell the difference between sense and nonsense'.

A very different take on the problematic nature of love is 'The Cabinet Child', the only period tale. In early 20th century America a beautiful but eccentric woman marries a shallow, greedy man. As often happened they end up leading separate lives, and he fathers no children. After his wife's death, however, he discovers that she managed to fulfil her desire for a child in a strange fashion.

Another recurring theme is that hell, or a close approximation thereof, consists of being trapped forever in the same moment in our lives. This is true of the maybe-killer in 'Inside William James', and of bereaved Trina in 'These Days When All is Silver and Bright'. The sense of being trapped by, or lured back to, a terrible incident also informs the superbly unsettling 'Wheatfield With Crows', which features a ghost that is convincingly unconventional.

Taken together, these stories demonstrate why a neglected, uncommercial literary discipline is important. As many have observed, all novels are flawed to some extent, but it is possibly to produce a perfect short story. Some of those perfect stories are here. 

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Infernal Regions

Most bookish people are at least aware of what's in Dante's epic poem. But, rather like Paradise Lost, The Divine Comedy is one of those classics that look good on a shelf, next to the stuff we enjoy. (Well, I got through the first bit of the trilogy then lost interest. I blame Dorothy L. Sayers' rather stodgy translation.) However, Dante's vision of Hell is such fun that many film makers have paid tribute to it, usually indirectly, but sometimes in a full-on adaptation. Here is the earliest example - and one of the earliest feature films, in the modern sense.



For those with more modern tastes, there's the recent animated feature 'based on EA's must-have game', apparently. Yes, there's a game. And no, the feature film version is not utterly farcical. In fact, it's a rather clever adaptation which - while taking huge liberties - is great fun and showcases the skills of half a dozen directors, each of whom tackles a different infernal region. Also, if you think the original is sadly lacking in fights and boobs, this is definitely for you. Check it out here.

Somewhere between the two is the 1935 version, which doesn't seem to be available in full, but YouTube has a lot of clips. I'm sure the tenacious can find the full version out there, somewhere. In the deep, dark wood of the web...