Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Loney

Folk horror is an interesting term. For cinephiles, it covers the Seventies British horror films The Wicker Man, Witchfinder General, and Blood on Satan's Claw. As a telephile (if that's a word) it also embraces rather a lot of Nigel Kneale's output - especially the episode 'Baby' from the classic series Beasts. Those dramas are all products of the Seventies, as was the Play for Today Robin Redbreast and the cult classic Penda's Fen. Even children's television got in on the act - check out Children of the Stones and the Doctor Who adventure 'The Daemons'.

There was something about that decade, when the late-Sixties counter-culture collided with old-school British cynicism and what had seemed a fairly stable, if very imperfect world started to seem a bit out-of-kilter. But it should be noted that folk horror, in literary fiction, has been around a while. M.R. James, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood all had different takes on local legends and traditional beliefs. One can also find folk horror in Robert Aickman's nightmarish tales, the ghost stories of Robert Westall, and the myth-driven novels of Alan Garner.

Which brings me to The Loney, a folk horror novel with a strong supernatural component. It has a Seventies setting, which can't be entirely coincidental. Here's the author, giving us a bit of background and some extracts.



The story begins with Smith, the adult narrator, learning from the news that the body of a child has been found in the remains of a house, Thessaly, which stood on a remote stretch of the Cumbrian coast. The 'wild and useless stretch of English coastline' is the Loney of the title - a bleak, ambiguous place offering the beauty of nature, but also a sense of intense isolation. Smith knew the body was there, and realises the investigation will have consequences for himself and his older brother Hanny.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows, Volume 2



I'm not sure what the etiquette is when you've actually got a story in a book, but there it is. My story 'Lineage' can be found alongside those of several authors I've been proud to publish in ST over the years. Indeed, most of those involved seem to be ST 'alumni', which feels good. The picture comes courtesy of Helen Grant's FB page. Find out more about the book from Sarob Press here. I'll have more to say about the other contributors' stories in due course.

Cover art by Paul Lowe

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Like a rat up a drainpipe...

Similes. Editors love them, and you can never use enough weird ones. (I am kidding, just in case you missed the tone, there.) But the internet is awash with examples of bad similes produced by modern students, as if there's something new about dodgy analogies. A bit of 'research' (i.e. Googling stuff) should convince anyone that there's nothing new about silly similes and so forth. 

But first, some examples that popped up on Facebook and are supposedly down to modern students:

'She was like a magnet - attractive from the back, repulsive from the front.' (Basic physics.)
'Her eyes twinkled, like the moustache of a man with a cold.' (Smooth.)
'The lamp just sat there, like an inanimate object.' (Have to admit, this one's hard to beat as deadpan humour.) 
'She had him like a toenail stuck in a shag carpet.' (Ouch.) 
'It was as easy as taking a candy from a diabetic man who no longer wishes to eat candy.' 

But let's be fair, it isn't easy to find an apt simile, and the stranger the thing you're trying to compare, the harder it gets. 

Which might explain why the Victorian poet Swinburne kept falling back on the word strange to describe all the big things in life, and indeed life itself. Other things Swinburne declared to be strange include sleep, heaven, fate, 'night and morning, stars and sun'; 'chance or doom', and 'hope's green blossom touched with time's harsh rust'. 

But that's poets for you - they play by different rules. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Ghosts & Scholars



I found a couple of early issues of Ghosts & Scholars at a book fair last weekend. They bear a strong resemblance to the latest G&S newsletter - back to the future, or possibly forward to the past? The point is that, if you don't read G&S you're missing out on some great fiction, very entertaining essays, and informative reviews. Ro Pardoe is a legendary editor in our small supernatural world, and continues to set a standard that others - like me - aspire to reach.

The latest issue, for instance, contains stories by D.P. Watt, Peter Bell, and Jacqueline Simpson. They area all in the M.R. James tradition, but - as always with G&S - are excellent stand-alone stories in their own right. There's also a great cover showing the mysterious globe in the maze from 'Mr. Humphreys and His Inheritance'.


So, just a quick mention for another publication that offers ghost story enthusiasts exactly what they're looking for.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

The Metanatural Adventures of Dr. Black

Gentle reader, a quick test of reading preferences.

Vladimir Nabokov
James Joyce
T.S. Eliot
Ezra Pound
Flann O'Brien
Alasdair Gray

If you don't really like any or all of the above, this is not the review for you. Move along now, nothing to see, etcetera. If, on the other hand, you like all that playful modernist stuff, you may enjoy this new collection from Brendan Connell, an author new to me. He sent me a pdf of TMAoDB, and I read and enjoyed it. I didn't understand all of it, but for me that's part of the pleasure.

In his introduction, Jeff VanderMeer rightly observes that Connell is playful and witty, and that he offers his reader great chunks of erudition. To some, this is a repellent trait in an author, perhaps because they feel the writer is holding forth like a prize bore at the dinner table. I feel differently - given the amount of clich├ęd tripe out there, something a bit out of the ordinary is very welcome.

All very well, but what's it about? Well, Dr. Black is, we are told, 'taller than a midget' (something he and I have in common) at 4 feet 11 inches. He has an impressive bearded countenance, a mighty brain, a splendid torso, and thin legs. He seems to be reasonably wealthy as well as highly erudite, and dedicates much of his time to the pursuit of arcane knowledge. But, like most of us, he can fall victim to animal passions - especially when it comes to the not-unrelated areas of food and lust.

Thus the first story, 'A Season with Dr. Black', finds out meta-hero at home with his domestic retainers, enjoying tomato soup and generally living the good life. A destabilising factor arrives n the form of a young woman called Tandy, whose car breaks down outside the Black residence. The course of true(?) love does not run smooth. This sort of thing seldom bodes well:
“Place your foot upon me, your slave,” she whispered, and let the sound dissipate in the still air, while the quivering of her lips by no means cut short the rose that blossomed within her, a dark maroon, with glistening thorns.
Some might find this prose overdone, too arch, a style that is self-consciously stylish. But it's not as if Connell is asking the reader to accept something new - modernism is a centenarian, at the very least. And it makes a refreshing change from the sub-Hemingway 'realism' that has long been the default setting for most writers.

On matters of content, things are more complicated. Some of the stories here don't qualify as supernatural fiction, but at least one does. The last tale, 'Dr. Black and the Red Demon Temple', contains a Japanese ghost story that recalls Lafcadio Hearn's reworking of classic folk tales, and is very good by any standard. But the traditionally eerie is a small part of the banquet of oddness on offer here.

Thus in one story we find a supposedly authentic account by Archimedes, no less, of his creation of a female android, It's a brilliant example of genre-spanning fiction, merging as it does the legends of Talos (the metal giant created by Daedalus) and Pygmalion to create a kind of classical Frankenstein. In another tale we enter something approaching William Burroughs country, as Dr. Black ventures into a Latin American republic on the verge of revolution, a process in which native hallucinogens and a mysterious cave system play a significant role. There are also odd interludes in which (among other things) the good doctor goes undercover at a convent, a comic touch that reminded me of 'Sister Josephine' by Jake Thackray.

Then there are what some clever folk call the paratextual elements - references, footnotes, the general paraphernalia of old-fashioned scholarship, mostly fake and often amusing. Flann O'Brien's 'great de Selby' was not so well served. There's also a questionnaire which asks (along with 'How much will you say under interrogation?') how satisfied the reader is with the book. Overall, I would plump for Very Satisfied.

Ghost Story Readings - Essex Police Museum


Among the readers of classic ghost stories with a legal/criminal flavour is Roger Johnson, who is always worth hearing and indeed chatting with. According to Roger, the stories are 'by M R James, Charles Dickens and Ex-Private X (i.e. A.M. Burrage)'.

Find out more here.

Monday, 8 September 2014

Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: Stories for J.S. Le Fanu



Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu was born just over 200 years ago, and occupies a unique position in the twilight realm of ghostly fiction. Le Fanu was a very successful Victorian novelist, an equally accomplished short story writer, and produced poetry and drama for good measure. He is arguably the central figure in what we call Gothic fiction, as he wrote after the genre had matured but died well before the modern horror story begins to emerge in the Edwardian era.


Le Fanu was man of contradictions - these writer chappies often are. A famous recluse in his later years, he was rather well-travelled. He was an Irish literary giant, but agreed to set his novels in England to reach a wider audience. Two of his best-loved stories, 'Carmilla' and 'Schalken the Painter', are set on the continent. Elsewhere he focuses on Irish folklore and the native culture of the Catholic peasantry he knew well, but stood apart from as a Protestant of Huguenot descent.

Dublin-based Swan River Press has produced a volume of stories to mark Le Fanu's bicentenary, jointly edited by Jim Rockhill and Brian J. Showers. These are not sequels/prequels to Le Fanu tales, but works  that examine some of the themes and ideas the author tackled. As such, Dreams of Shadows and Smoke is a fine collection in its own right, as well as a solid tribute to the 'invisible prince' of Irish fiction.

Monday, 1 September 2014

Temperance Lloyd, Mary Trembles, and Susannah Edwards

An odd title for a post, but those names belonged to three witches executed in Devon 322 years ago. They were the last people hanged for witchcraft in England. Now modern witches (some in pointy hats, it must be said) are demanding a posthumous pardon for the women. They were of course convicted of witchcraft because neighbours said bad things about them, they were poor... and that's about it. The Wikipedia entry on the case seems to have been sourced from Sabine Baring-Gould.

A plaque at Exeter’s Rougemont Castle commemorates the 1682 Bideford witch trial

The inclusion of Alice Molland is debatable, but it at least possible that she was the last person to be hanged for witchcraft. The problem is that primary source material seems to be lacking.

There is always a debate about whether pardons long after an injustice mean anything. But it doesn't hurt to draw attention to a stain on our history. 

Wherever people believe in witchcraft, witches will be found. Admittedly, sometimes they make it easy.


Today's witches look like an amiable crowd. I wish them well. It's a pity that this latest gathering didn't beat the all-time record for the largest number of witches in any one place. That was set two years ago at Warwick castle; 765 witches. There is no information on the number of cats. Probably quite a few.