Wednesday, 30 April 2014

eCovers

One of the things you're supposed to do when you publish an ebook is provide an ecover. Instead of simply using the print covers, I went a bit mad and tried to create new covers so downloaders would feel they're getting a distinctive product. Or something. Anyway, here are some of the ones I made using Sam Dawson's artwork.





The second one is a new picture not used in the print version. It just happened to be there, so I thought I'd bung it in. A traditional haunted house image, I think it looks rather good. Is the fact that it's not 'book-shaped' important? I'd guess not with an e-reader. Or am I wrong?

Friday, 25 April 2014

ST for Kindle and other e-readers

Okay, here's an experiment. You can download the latest issue from Smashwords on a 'pay what you like' basis for the next week or so. Available formats are epub, mobi, pdb, and other random lumps of alphabet. And here's the cover!



UPDATE: Several issues are now available. Recent ones are pay-what-you-like, older ones are set at a price of $3.95. Is that price too high or too low for a magazine running to just over 30,000 words? Regular ebook downloaders, please let me know!

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Some films I've watched lately

Films that have a supernatural bent, that is. We begin with one I should have watched a while back - I could kick myself that I missed this when it came out.


What impresses me about The Devil's Business? Well, almost everything. For a start, it's intelligently scripted. That's no small thing in low-budget horror, where the script sometimes seems to have been cobbled together at the last minute. Here the way the telling of a 'ghost story' leads into some extreme occult action is brilliantly handled. The lead performances range from fine to superb, and the effects, lighting, camerawork and soundtrack are outstanding. Oh, and there's a genuinely original (and yet entirely traditional) monster. It's rare that I finish a horror movie thinking what a splendid motion picture I've just seen, but that was how I felt with this one. Dennis Wheatley meets 

Not nearly so good, but still entertaining in many ways, is this Korean horror. 


Possessed is formulaic and has a soundtrack that bashes your brains out to underline just how shocking the not-unpredictable shocks are. But, given its genre limitations, it's still a good film. 

Firstly, it's one of the few movies that illustrates a conflict between Christianity (South Korea's majority religion) and older, shamanistic beliefs. Secondly, and this is a common factor with a lot of Asian horror, it doesn't pull any punches. Just because we have a sweet, pretty girl heroine doesn't mean she'll survive in fine Hollywood style. Thirdly, there are a few genuinely surreal, disorientating moments in the obligatory dream sequences that make you believe that this is indeed a nightmare. 

Oh, and there's the usual bunch of boorish Korean cops who are about as much use as a fart in a spacesuit when it comes to tackling a paranormal threat. 

Finally, there's this interesting contribution to the Seventies vampire genre.


I have no idea how to adequately describe Nocturna: Granndaughter of Dracula. Poor old John Carradine's aged count has false fangs. There's this bonkers bloke called Brother Theodore. The producer, writer, and star, Nai Bonet, was apparently a very popular Franco-Vietnamese belly dancer at the time. Sort of. Ms Bonet's dancing is indeed spiffing, but she delivers her lines as if she learned them phonetically while slightly concussed. The disco scenes are oddly compelling. It's all so... sparkly. And it's all on YouTube. Did you think I'd buy this? 

Toothsome


Monday, 21 April 2014

The Master of the House


John Gaskin's third collection from Tartarus is also his last, according to the author's introduction. Gaskin, a retired professor of philosophy who lives in Northumberland (not too far from where I'm typing this) has, presumably, written himself out. This is a pity, as at his best he is a masterly storyteller in the great tradition of the British weird tale.

The subtitle 'Tales of Twilight and Borderlands' sums up the appeal of the strongest stories collected here. The Borders, the region that was once the northernmost frontier of the Romans and later became the nucleus of the kingdom of Northumbria, is little-known and ill-defined. It has a rich and strange history. Gaskin captures the beauty and the oddness of the border landscape, as Sarban did in 'Ringstones'. And like Sarban Gaskin tends to shun the obvious horror story device of 'monster and/or maniac' as menace in favour of less well-defined entities.

Thus in 'Night Music' some young archaeologists decide to investigate the site of a Roman fort. A series of accidents cuts the party from four to two, who end up staying the night in a run-down bothy. There is a sinister watcher, and strange flute music is heard. The denouement reveals, albeit in strange form, an essential truth - that history is not dead, but is always nearby. It lies in wait, stalks us, can capture us. 

A similar theme in a similar landscape is found in 'The Pit', though here the execution is very much that of a traditional ghost story. There is also a conventional protagonist in the form of an unpleasant businessman who comes to a country house for grubby, dishonourable reasons and falls foul of... well, let's call it a good example of a not-unfamiliar spirit.

'The Double Crossing' concerns shenanigans at a college of a venerable university. (Might it be Oxford? Surely not!) But here, too, Gaskin can't resist having his shady Principal head north to see his sister in the wilds of Northumberland. Here the author's sardonic humour - no doubt born out of many years spent surviving academic life - tends to overshadow the spookery. A quasi-sequel, 'The New Inn Hall Inheritance', is by contrast a tale of lost love, of hopes dashed and regret that can never be wholly neutralised by such traditional British understatement such as 'Perhaps we'll exchange Christmas cards.'

'Party Talk' is indeed about a conversation at a party (one held in Northumberland, of course), and is a good example of what might be termed the Weird Narrator sub-genre. A man is asked whether he believes in ghosts, and admits that he does not, with certain reservations. His interlocutor, an elderly woman who looks somewhat the worse for wear, then tells a story that is a fine hybrid of the Jamesian tale and a between-the-wars horror story of the Wakefield/Burrage school.

The same might be said of 'Addendum to a Confession', which evokes the age of pre-Beeching, steam-powered travel. The tale concerns the aftermath of the murder, in a railway's canteen, of an unpleasant character who apparently possessed occult powers. The arguably un-dead villain is well-realised, his return - while expected by the reader - is very effective. (I also found myself wondering if the baddie's name, Harding, is a sly nod to poor old Gilbert of that ilk?)

A rather different visitation occurs in 'Where Shadows Lead', in which the dangers of a genuinely wild landscape are brought home to a man who - at first - feels he has little to live for. A flat battery, driving snow, and the sudden realisation that nature can kill you as easily in England as it might anywhere else provide an efficient build-up to an encounter with genuine spirits of place.

Perhaps the best of the Northumberland tales is 'Wolvershiel', in which the narrator's personal history is interwoven with that of the eponymous house. As in the tales mentioned above, a sense of the Northumberland landscape and its history is perfectly evoked. There is also a central scene worthy of the classics, with a glimpse of 'a child in white pyjamas too big for him, playing blind-man's-buff'. 

The collection's title story is perhaps the most conventional - a haunted house narrative, complete with a readily achieved means of laying the ghost. That said, the careful accumulation of detail makes it a solid example of its kind. The same can be said of 'Empty Places', with its clever twist on the theme of precognitive dreams.

The overall feel of The Master of the House - like that of Gaskin's first two collections - is of nostalgia for better times, and most stories off us that 'haze of distance' recommended by Dr James. The traditional, carefully-crafted ghost story is well-represented here. I suspect this book will remind many of us why we first fell in love with the genre. 

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Codex Yuggoth

What connects Doctor John Dee the Elizabethan alchemist with the Selenites of H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon? Can you recall the hideous experiment of Andre Delambre? (Clue: 'Heeeelp meeeee!' in a tiny voice.) And why is St John of Patmos in the mix? Answers to these and other impertinent questions may be found in the latest pamphlet from Peterborough's power-packed poet Pete 'Cardinal' Cox.

Regular readers will know that, down the years, the Cardinal of the Arcane has striven personfully to tie together all the disparate strands of weird fiction, plus a bit of folklore, Forteana and even your actual history. It's an exercise that would be laborious and unconvincing in prose, but works brilliantly in what seems like light verse. I say seems, because while the mood is usually playful, there is a dark thread that runs through a tapestry that is often bright with an old-school sci-fi 'sensawunda'.

Anyway, his latest mini-opus deals with the Outer Ones created (or first accurately observed?) by Lovecraft in such stories as 'The Whisperer in Darkness'. But the first poem deals with earlier occurrences - specifically, the Jewel of Seven Stars famously acquired by the Pharaonic witch-queen Tera. Does the constellation Ursa Major provide a hint as to one origin of the Outer Ones? I've no idea, but the point is that the footnotes are fascinating, as usual.

And if you're still wondering about Andre Delambre - he was the scientist in the original version of The Fly. Apparently it was not a botched experiment caused by a wayward insect, but an attempt by the Outer Ones to fuse themselves to our species at a molecular level, the sneaky chitinous bastards.

A cool glowing machine crackles and hums
An instant - flesh of two becomes as one
What science weds can never undone
Emerging - what should never be becomes

A copy of this spiffing pamphlet can be had by sending a C5 SAE to:

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay
Peterborough
PE2 5RB

Read it before they come and get you...



Astral Zombies! Baron Blood!



Due to an editorial oversight, none of the above appear in the latest issue of Supernatural Tales. For which I can only apologise. Better luck next time.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Issue 26 is now available

You can buy the latest issue of ST via the link to the right. People in the UK who have postal subscriptions should receive their copies by next week at the latest. Those who live overseas must place their trust in the gods of the postal system, so it'll take a bit longer. But please let me know when your copy arrives so I can gauge how efficient things are.


Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Dancing Dracula

There's something about Bram Stoker's classic that works on stage. In a film or TV version, no matter how enjoyable, I'm waiting for something to fail, for the inevitable sense that this story is very, very silly indeed and doesn't hang together at all. But in live action it always seems to work. I had no idea there was more than one ballet version of Dracula, but then I know next to nothing about ballet. Anyway, this looks interesting.



As does this, taking a much more trad approach.



Then there's what might be termed the West End option.



Nice to see the Count and his pals can still inspire the young folk.

Building a Spooky Library - H.P. Lovecraft


Very few writers are influential on society in any way whatever. Successful authors influence their accountants. Acclaimed literary authors win awards and merit serious obituaries. Howard Philips Lovecraft was a commercial failure and never won an award, but his influence on popular culture is significant. His ideas have become part of the DNA of our strange world, especially in films and games. Millions who've never heard of him have encountered Lovecraftian images and ideas, most obviously in films such as Alien. This in itself makes him exceptional. He set out to try and change the nature of horror fiction, and succeeded in opening up new possibilities for those who came after. 



Monday, 14 April 2014

'The Road' Recreated



This is an amateur production of Nigel Kneale's 1963 television play 'The Road'. The BBC wiped the videotape so the original version is lost. Fans can only do so much, of course, but given the constraints on broadcast drama at the time of writing I think it's closer to what Kneale had in mind than anything the BBC might attempt today. See what you think.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

The Moment of Panic

'The Marginals', the first story in this book, neatly sums up Steve Duffy's very British brand of horror. In this tale a man who has made some bad life choices (or fallen victim to circumstance, or both) gets a strange job. It involves observing what appear to be rather dull men standing about in lay-by. 

These men are not ghosts or zombies, but partake of some of the qualities of both. They are at once real yet nonexistent: 'they were given over to the margins, to the space around the edge of things. In this way, they became the sort of creatures for whom these places - these inhospitable thresholds they're forever on the verge of crossing - might have been invented.' 

It is this marginal land that most of Steve Duffy's characters inhabit, explore, or blunder into. It is recognisable as Britain (most of the time), but it is certainly not the country described by corporations, the media, or politicians. This is in part because it is the land that they have made, and therefore must never acknowledge. 

Thus in 'The A to Z' Hugo's migration to London from the provinces recalls any number of novels and films from the Swinging Sixties. But his saga takes place not in the era of 'Waterloo Sunset', but of Maggie in Number Ten. Hugo's discovery of an address and phone number scribbled on a page of his battered street guide might have led to a romantic, uplifting conclusion. At some level he knows it can't. But he must make the call, have the conversation, and go to the place in the posh suburbs where he will encounter - what? No stock monster, certainly, but a rather Eighties species of horror.

'The Suicide Wood' has a very different background, but a not-dissimilar story - of someone whose options have, so far as he can see, run out. A Japanese teenager decided to take his life in the eponymous forest and arranges a suicide pact online with a girl. Fans of Japanese horror movies will find much to enjoy here, especially the youngsters' meeting at a railway station. We can guess that things will not end well for Harumi, but what part will the lovely Yuki play in his fate?

'Lives of the Saints' is a minor tour-de-force that is apparently based on a real and very tragic case. Told in the voice of a lively Irish girl, Daisy May, who is sent to Wales to live with intensely religious relatives, it seems at first to be a rather upbeat story of teenage rebellion, but things darken gradually thanks to intense superstition and credulity. The transition from comedy to tragedy is brilliantly handled.

At this point you might be wondering if this is another collection of that 'miserablist' horror that some ghost story fans tend to prod with a stick and then step carefully around. I've always thought that the term, applied to so many stories written in the Nineties, is a classic instance of categorising a trend in terms of its worst examples. The best fiction by, say, the late Joel Lane was not inherently miserable, any more than the stories of (say) Hardy or Conrad - compassionate pessimists both. But, just in case, let me assure you that there in some unalloyed fun to be found in these pages.

'Todhunter's Rock' is certainly an upbeat effort, and in a way acts as an antidote to all those lavish Agatha Christie adaptations so beloved of TV executives. A murder mystery, the story offers the reader information about a series of characters, any one of whom might end up killing the wheelchair-bound millionaire who lives off the Cornish coast. The author celebrates the joy of starting an absorbing whodunit, and pays tribute to a number of thriller writers. 

'Lie Still, Sleep Becalmed' is, according to the author's notes, surprisingly popular. It's easy to see why. It is a story that will delight anyone who's spent far too much of their lives watching old horror movies, shows like The X-Files, and reading anthologies about Nautical Nasties. The Platonic archetype of the weird tale set on a boat is available right here, folks. And it's Welsh. A group of friends set out for an evening's boozing and yarning off Anglesey. They anchor above a mythical sunken land, and the sonar detects something rising toward them. Something that is not a shoal of fish... If you love that moment in a movie as much as I do, this one's for you. 

'Girl put your records on'
On the subject of celluloid, 'Vulnavia, or, The Mechanical Princess' is a splendid tribute to the Doctor Phibes movies, which starred Vincent Price as a hideously disfigured organ-playing supervillain. Looking at that picture (the actress is Virginia North), who wouldn't want to know her story? And where she got the hat? Sadly we don't learn about the titfer, but a lot is revealed in this jeu d'esprit, which offers a credible explanation for a seemingly nice girl's alliance with the murderous Anton Phibes. This is very playful stuff, enlivened by Duffy's trademark intelligence and wit.

A very different take on a classic movie is 'You Are Now in Bedford Falls'. I've always found It's a Wonderful Life resistible because of the darkness Duffy highlights here. Capra's fable reveals rather too well the malice and greed that mar the American dream, while the sentimental denouement doesn't really work. So the story just takes the next logical step and reveals that dear old George (the James Stewart character) is not in fact rescued by an angel at all...

'A Serious Piece of Metal' appeared in the fifth issue of ST. Hard to believe it was that long ago. This one might deserve the miserablist tag in some ways; it's a grim Northern nightmare, much of which takes place in a public toilet. It will certainly not be adapted for television by Julian Fellowes, and is all the better for it. But I might add that it's quite funny in a knockabout, mad axeman sort of way.

Around the time 'A Serious Piece...' saw print I turned down 'Secrets of the Beehive' for ST, and have been regretting it ever since. This one is a slow-burner with a whiff of Nigel Kneale's Beasts, not least in its cosy country setting and the sense that something is going seriously awry just out of sight. I have no idea why I didn't like this story when I first read it, proving yet again that editing, like writing, can't even aspire to the status of an inexact science.

Oh well. On to stories that other editors sensibly accepted. Ro Pardoe took 'Old As the Hills' for the last fiction issue of Ghosts & Scholars (old style), while Barbara Roden published 'The Rag and Bone Men' in Ash-Tree's Shadows & Silence. 'Old As the Hills' has all the ingredients of a Jamesian pastiche - traveller in remote part of the country, strange antics at the village church, a horror that is glimpsed rather than seen. But the modern setting and style demonstrate that the essence of Jamesian horror has nothing to do with period detail. It works by effective scene-setting and deft characterisation, which work to bring a good idea to life.

'The Rag and Bone Men' is about as far from the cosy antiquarian ghost story as you can imagine. It's not surprising that the author was worried about its reception, as it deals with the most monstrous crime of our age. The story succeeds (and rightly won a prestigious award) because it doesn't attempt to push the reader toward any particular emotional response. We are instead invited to grasp something of the truth of history by sharing the memories of a man who is, morally speaking, a monster. And he is a very ordinary man, which is where the true horror lies.

Like Steve Duffy's previous collection, Tragic Life Stories, this book offers plenty of old-school thrills and twists. But each story is also an object lesson in how weird fiction should be written - with respect for the form, and for the reader's intelligence.

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Dunwich

I've posted about Dunwich before, somewhere, but here is an interesting film about one of the sunken towns of England. Recently the country has suffered heavily from flooding and coastal erosion, during a very stormy winter. Dunwich is a warning from history that nature is not easily thwarted, and then only for a while.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Poe Statue

And about time too. The Edgar Allan Poe Foundation (based in Boston) has raised enough cash to put up a statue to the author, complete with added raven. Story is here. This is what it'll look like. It will cost nearly a quarter of a million dollars. Ironic when you consider that Poe spent much of his life scrabbling for much smaller sums.

Proposed Poe statue

I can't see M.R. James getting this kind of treatment any time soon. But all credit to the weird fiction fans of America - and beyond - who've got behind this project.

Inscriptions don't seem to be fashionable in these post-literate times, but perhaps exceptions can be made for statues of writers? Anyway, I'd suggest the following, from 'Alone':

From childhood's hour I have not been 
As others were; I have not seen 
As others saw; I could not bring 
 My passions from a common spring.