Saturday, 31 May 2014

The Abominable Snowman (1957)


So, here is a film I haven't watched for a while. It is a Fifties, black and white monster movie (sort of), starring Peter Cushing, scripted by Nigel Kneale, and directed by Val Guest. And, yes, it's an early Hammer Horror (sort of). I'm pleased to report that it stands up rather well, despite being obviously studio-based and short on budget. 

The original version of this drama was screened by the BBC. Kneale wrote 'The Creature' as a TV play in 1955, and adapted it for the big screen. As one might expect, it is not the B-movie horror story the trailer above suggests. Indeed, though Kneale never explicitly states it, the real monster here is obviously Man. Anyway, here is a spoiler-infested synopsis.

The story begins in Bray Studios Tibet, a place of many oriental extras and several small horses. Dr John Rollason (Cushing) is having fun with high-altitude botany while staying at a Tibetan lamasery. Unusually, Rollason's wife Helen (Maureen Connell) is also part of the team. The third member is played by Richard Wattis, who went on to be come one of early British TV's instantly recognisable supporting actors. 

Cushing is always a delight, and here he gives a spot-on performance as a decent, idealistic scientist - a character type common in Kneale's work. Some ominous foreshadowing occurs as it emerges that an American team is on the way to hunt the fabled Yeti. This new expedition is led by Tom Friend (Forrest Tucker), a an overbearing loudmouth who is keen to recruit Rollason to give his monster-hunting some scientific legitimacy. Friend has a plan, and it involves steel mesh cages and study traps. He is determined not to come back with more than photographs of large footprints...

The Friend expedition sets off, but soon runs into problems. Rollason comes to realise that the Yetis are an evolutionary offshoot, driven to the edge of extinction by more aggressive homo sapiens, but ready to colonise the world if (or when) we destroy ourselves. This is portentous stuff for a Hammer film, and it's debatable whether it works. But what is effective is the way the Yetis turn the hunters' own hopes and fears against them. 

Instead of being picked off by the monster (in the usual creature feature way) the tough guys wipe themselves out. It's significant that the Tibetan guide does a runner and lives while the two Americans arrogantly assume they can handle anything, and as a result both cop it big time. Between these extremes is the tragic end of a photographer who has become obsessed by the Yeti since encountering on very briefly years before. 

Dr Rollason survives, having encountered the Yetis face to face. In the final scene he tells the Lama that the Abominable Snowman does not exist. Has he been brainwashed into forgetting what happened? Or has he become resigned to human extinction, and accepts that the beings of the high valleys would make better custodians of the earth? We can't know. But we're pretty sure the Lama does.

This wasn't an especially successful Hammer film, and it's easy to see why. It's rather slow and talky, and the sequences involving the actual Yeti hunt are not especially thrilling. It also straddles the ground between horror, adventure, and sci-fi, making it hard to classify. It's certainly not typical Hammer fare. But there are some eerie moments, and it's well worth a look. I have it on DVD, but it can at present be found on YouTube in its entirety. 

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Birthdays!




Peter Cushing May 26th, 1913, Vincent Price May 27th, 1911, and Christopher Lee May 27th, 1922. Does this mean there's something in astrology? 

No.

Thanks to the Peter Cushing Appreciation Society for the excellent graphic. 

Helen Grant Interview

Completely forgot to link to this interview, which appeared at the Swan River Press site when Helen's collection The Sea Change was published a while back. The interview, conducted by Jason E. Rolfe, includes this point. Some people do indeed like to be scared, and from that, much follows.
Well, I’ve heard a theory that supernatural stories are all about confronting our most deep rooted fears: of death, mutilation, insanity and disease — e.g. vampire stories would represent a fear of infectious disease. I think there is some truth in that. Since ghost stories often seem to involve the settling of a grudge or retribution, I suppose they are exploring the question of whether there is any kind of ultimate justice. But basically I think you can split people up into two groups: the ones who absolutely hate to be scared, and the ones who like it! I know people who say “How can you watch films like that/read books like that?” That is one half of humanity. The other half are comparing notes on which is the scariest movie/novel ever, so they can get it . . .

Friday, 23 May 2014

The Dark Return of Time



I find myself in a slightly awkward position...

But enough of my sordid private life. No, but seriously, it is difficult to review some books without giving away rather too much. Some people hate spoilers with a passion. I'm not one of them, oddly enough. Even if I know the key twist in a movie it doesn't bother me too much. But I am in a weird minority, I know. So I will try to review a book that has a twist without giving key plot points away and generally being an idiot.

The new novel from R(ay). B. Russell is described as a 'quiet thriller', and it does indeed seem - at first - to fall squarely into the crime genre. A young man by the name of Flavian Bennett has undergone a traumatic loss. He moves to Paris to work in his father's British bookshop.

It seems that working quietly among the first editions is exactly what Flavian needs. But then things starts to go awry. The shop is visited by a pretentious-seeming bibliophile, Reginald Hopper, to whom Flavian takes an instant, if slightly irrational, dislike. Flavian notices that Hopper seems to be of interest to a young Englishwoman, Candy Smith, who bears a slight but disturbing resemblance to Flavian's dead fiancée.

This much is indeed the stuff of mystery. Indeed, the book reminded me of one of Ruth Rendell's stand-alone novels, not least because of its plain, dispassionate style. And, as in much of Rendell's fiction, we are dealing with several damaged and/or dangerous individuals. When Flavian witnesses a violent abduction he suspects that Hopper may be involved. Candy claims that Hopper is indeed a very dangerous man, but one who has escaped justice, but she is not the most reliable of informants. And how does any of this relate to the book that Hopper is obsessed with owning, a very obscure volume entitled The Dark Return of Time?

Suffice to say that the author does wrap things up satisfactorily, thanks to the effective use of a well-respected narrative device. Along the way there are some interesting bits of bibliophilic detail, a dig at the poor old Folio Society, a few points about what it means to be a Brit in Paris, and some action sequences that are very well-handled. Russell does not ask the reader to believe than an ordinary person can act like a Hollywood hero, but does give his characters the wit to seize chances when they are presented. He also wisely avoids saying too much about the mysterious book. What he does reveal is unnerving to Flavian and to the reader.

While not a supernatural tale within the strict definition of the term, this short novel offers the reader a world that is slightly out of kilter, if not quite that of a nightmare. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes intellectual thrillers with a touch of the outré. I'll add that, as with all Swan River Press volume, the dust jacket and cover art are rather splendid.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Jerome K. Jerome Plaque

Griff Rhys-Jones, Rory McGrath, Jeremy Nicholas, president of the Jerome K Jerom

The JKJ plaque was unveiled in London's famous Bloomsbury district. The unveilers, if that's a word, were comedy actors Griff Rhys Jones and Rory McGrath, who star in a TV series named after the author's most famous book, Three Men in a Boat. Which is fair enough. But Jerome was also the author of a number of rather dark short stories that put him firmly in the supernatural horror tradition.

Indeed, if he'd written more in the same vein Jerome might have been known as the British Ambrose Bierce, as he had a similarly grim sense of humour. Even in his hit comic novel there is a scene in which the body of a woman - a presumed suicide - drifts by the narrator's boat.

I think his best weird tale is 'The Woman of the Saeter', which I first came across in one of the famous series of Equation Chillers. You can find the full text here. It's arguably a study in madness, but the strange vampire-siren of the mountain snows is wonderfully well-realised.
She has come. I have known she would, since that evening I saw her on the mountain; and last night she came, and we have sat and looked into each other's eyes. You will say, of course, that I am mad--that I have not recovered from my fever--that I have been working too hard--that I have heard a foolish tale, and that it has filled my overstrung brain with foolish fancies: I have told myself all that. But the thing came, nevertheless--a creature of flesh and blood? a creature of air? a creature of my own imagination?--what matter? it was real to me.

Monday, 19 May 2014

The Green Book: 3


The third issue of a magazine usually offers a decent litmus test of its likely long-term quality. Has the momentum of the first two numbers been maintained? By this standard The Green Book, from Dublin's Swan River Press, is set to be with us for a while. The standard remains very high and the contributors are still diverse and interesting a bunch.

It's the 200th anniversary of the birth of J.S. Le Fanu, and the 150th of the publication of Uncle Silas, by far his best-known novel. So it's not surprising, as editor Brian J. Showers notes in his introduction, that we're in for a Le Fanu fest and no mistake. Hence the cup of green tea on the cover. However, before we get into that, let's look at some items that don't deal with old J, Sheridan.

For a start, there's part three of Albert Power's almost preternaturally erudite essay (or book) entitled 'Towards an Irish Gothic'. He's just reached the early 19th century, which gives you some idea of how exhaustive this work is. Power has a style (rococo, maybe?) that suits his subject matter. Thus we read of 'intermittent glintings of sacerdotal roguery' rather than dodgy priests. In dealing with the life and works of clergyman-author Charles Maturin he raised several smiles from your humble reviewer. He almost persuaded me to give Melmoth the Wanderer a try, if only to find out if it's quite as ludicrous as it seems. 

Altogether different, but just as interesting, is Rob Brown's 'Hybrids and Hyphenates: H.P. Lovecraft and the Irish'. Close examination of several stories by Lovecraft, plus his correspondence and amateur journalism, shows how the Anglophile author struggled to define the Irish and ended up - as per usual - wallowing in rather unpleasant stereotypes. One point that I had missed - yet it's undeniably there - is the weird way Lovecraft merges Irish and Jewish stereotypes in some characters, almost as if he'd heard of Leopold Bloom at third hand and was determined to launch a riposte to Joyce.

On, then, to Le Fanu, and Terri Neil's 'The Embodiment of Sinister Agencies'. This focuses on the author's famous treatment of the disembodied hand theme. 'The Authentic Narrative...' is the favourite Le Fanu tale of author Jane Jakeman, and her enthusiasm led me to re-read it recently. It is a very odd story, not least because there is no clear explanation for what occurs, and in a closely-reasoned piece Neil notes how Le Fanu sets his haunting apart from more obvious tales. It is, as Neil points out, peculiarly horrible to know nothing more than that a presence is in the house, close by members of the family. And it takes a peculiar genius to make an effective story from such a simple idea.

'Some Notes on Le Fanu's Beatrice' by Philip A. Ellis and Jim Rockhill is especially interesting (to me) as it concerns the author's only drama. Beatrice is a verse-drama in two acts, and has been almost wholly ignored by critics and editors. This is not surprising - drama has relatively few enthusiasts these days, poetry even fewer. The play is a closet drama, in that it's intended to be read aloud rather than performed. It does not, I must admit, look especially entertaining, but it may well bear comparison with better known efforts by Browning, among others.

I recently acquired a dog-eared copy of one of the Pan Books of Horror Stories, and was pleasantly surprised to see an article about the series' editor, Herbert van Thal. While some have found fault with van Thal's choices for Pan, J.A. Mains makes out a strong case for the editor as a genuine connoisseur of weird fiction's great tradition and of Le Fanu's work in particular. The article also reproduces two introductory essays on Le Fanu that van Thal wrote at very different stages in his career. 

As you can see, this latest Green Book covers a lot of ground. The review section is similarly diverse, with insightful items on the new DVD release of Schalcken the Painter, a heroic attempt to put Melmoth on stage, and several books. The overall feel here is not of fusty excavation in a small corner of the literary world, but of exploration on a broad front that continues to unearth intriguing finds.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

A chip off 'Cold Plate' by Charles Wilkinson



This is yours truly reading an extract from Charles Wilkinson's excellent story in the latest ST. I did try to record the whole thing but I couldn't do it justice. It's a story told from a female perspective, for a start, and I don't think my voice is suitable. And, sad but true, I find it difficult to read erotic scenes without bursting out into a fit of giggles. So that's me. The magazine can be bought via links to the right of this, if you haven't already got it.

The Forbidden Forest



Here's a creepy little film influenced by Arthur Machen's 'The White People'.

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Aickmanesque Photos

I've attached a link (in the list to the right) to images presented by John Toohey, whose site is called Seven Roads. A page of his impressive site is dedicated to found images under the heading 'The Unsettled Dust'. Toohey also explains why he thinks his project was destined to fail, and shares his thoughts on Aickman's work. He points out that Aickman's world is black and white, something that never occurred to me. His most interesting and incisive remark, for me, is:
The writers closest in spirit to Aickman are not Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft but Graham Greene, when he wrote about London, Philip Larkin, when he described the landscape, and Patrick Hamilton, when he wrote about disillusion. Aickman may be classified as a writer of horror or supernatural tales, but he was above all, a chronicler of the English middle class.
Anyway, here are some of the images, culled from various online sources, that Toohey offers.



Friday, 9 May 2014

Gothicky fun

There's a fun item at the Guardian books pages entitled 'How to tell if you're reading a Gothic novel - in pictures'. (Thanks to Helen Grant for alerting me to this.) It's a good reminder of how pervasive and plain crazy the original, 18th century Gothic novel was, and it underlines the importance of the supernatural to the genre - even when the ghost has a Scooby Do-style explanation. Anyway, here are a couple of the pictures to give you a flavour of the thing.

Gothic novels: The villain is a  murderous tyrant

Gothic novels: There is (probably) a ghost or monster

Saturday, 3 May 2014

The Teeth of Abbott Thomas



'Please, please, please let me tell you a story!'

Smashwords is up to speed...

... by which I mean that all versions of ST that are available in print-on-demand form at Lulu are also now available as ebooks. You're welcome. Here is the Stephen J. Clark cover for ST#17.


Now comes the tricky part. Earlier issues of ST are out of print. People would probably like to have these as ebooks. I know I would. But I don't think I'm entitled to simply upload old stuff by authors without their permission. Getting permission will not be possible if I can't contact the authors. So I'm considering a pared-down approach for issues 1 to 16, and of course the price will be correspondingly lower. Just to add to the confusion, a couple of issues were annual i.e. each contained over a dozen stories, so there I might be able to produce bumper issues.

Watch this haunted space.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

More eCovers

I've reached the Stephen J. Clark phase of ST's history, when his astonishing, surreal covers graced the magazine. Stephen is a gifted author and writer, whose work can be explored at the Singing Garden. Here are the two SJC covers I've uploaded to Smashwords so far.