Saturday, 30 May 2015

New from Sarob

Romances of the White Day is the new volume from Sarob, consisting of three long stories paying tribute to the manifold worlds of Arthur Machen. The authors are John Howard, Mark Valentine, and Ron Weighell. Each explores a different aspect of Machen's fiction, ranging from London to Wales in simple geography, and much further afield in terms of the supernatural. Expect a review shortly! 

Friday, 29 May 2015

Q - The Winged Serpent (1982)


Imagine a monster movie in which Aztec ritual sacrifice conjures up a flying monster that snatches New Yorkers from high buildings. Well, we don't need to imagine it, because it was made by a chap called Larry Cohen. And it's every bit as weird as it sounds.

Q is one of those exuberantly daft films that marked the temporary demise of the cheap-and-cheerful(ish) horror/monster movie that was actually intended for movie release. The rise of VHS meant that, in a few years' time, films with such absurd (and bloody) premises would go straight to video.

But Q (the Winged Serpent bit was added later, and doesn't appear in the opening credits) was seen as your local fleapit, in all likelihood. As such, it commanded some decent production values and a starry cast.

Rather than just review it, I found an old MP3 recorder and decided to test it out by recording my brilliant observations. It's been  many, many years since I saw Q on late-night telly. In fact it's quite possible that I've never seen it all the way through till now, just caught bits when rolling in from the pub in my misspent youth. Well, it's time to rectify that as I give you my scintillating insights, as recorded during the actual movie when I'd been drinking.

This may go on for some time. It's all free, folks...

Thursday, 28 May 2015

An Extra Shadow

Here's a poem fresh from the pen of Cardinal Cox, whose latest pamphlet is reviewed below...

An Extra Shadow We count an extra shadow on drawing room floor There seems to be no moral to this sorry tale As you fall asleep there comes a knocking at the door It causes the young chambermaid an extra chore 
We thought our round uncle had imbibed too much ale We count an extra shadow on drawing room floor At meals the bright cook prepares enough for one more Slime on scullery flags we blamed upon a snail As you fall asleep there comes a knocking at the door
Creak upon the empty landing chills to the core No known previous resident was sent to gaol We count an extra shadow on drawing room floor When the sweet vicar kindly called we heard he swore What, we wonder, could have ripped the eternal veil As you fall asleep there comes a knocking at the door A nervous niece had vivid vision of gore We await the inevitable midnight wail We count an extra shadow on drawing room floor As you fall asleep there comes a knocking at the door

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Steam Driven Oi

I am deeply ashamed. It took me literally days to figure out the title of Cardinal Cox's latest pamphlet. Days. And I actually have in my possession a worn paperback of John Sladek's collection The Steam-Driven Boy. I blame this virus I've had for weeks, I really do.

Any road up, what makes the Cardinal's latest effusion all more the interesting is that it is not a poetry pamphlet, as such, but consists of a short story with poetry trimmings. I'll reveal the delights of the former in a moment, but first, let us peruse the poems.

First up is 'An  Address to the Citizens of Middlemarch', its signatories 'General Ludd and Brother Enoch of the Military Council of the Invincible Army'. George Eliot meets Shelley's 'Masque of Anarchy', here, with its ominous warning to the toffs that if they push the plebs too far regrettable things may occur. It recalls (for me) O-level history on the Corn Laws and Peterloo, but also the lousy state we're in today, with food banks and zero hours contracts. Thus the first line, putting bankers before 'landlord and parasites upon the poor', jumps across the eras like a spark.

Still riffing on Eliot's classic, the second poem is 'Mr. and Mrs. Ladislaw Call'. We find the worthy philanthropists twenty years on, fervent Chartists and supporting mass education. It ends on a question, as is reasonable. The jury is very much out on whether noble spirits can 'cure societies many ills'.

Staying with the theme of progress and its pitfalls, there follows a faux-obituary of Plantagenet Palliser, Trollope's great statesman who died loaded with honours as Duke of Omnium and Earl of Silverbridge. There's a wonderfully surreal and yet bitterly felt tone to this one, especially in lines like 'Early in Palliser's career (...) Plantagenet was responsible for the removal of the right of sunlight from children'. If that recalls a certain milk-snatching stateswoman, well, it's supposed to. Any doubts on this point are settled by 'the Breathing Tax riots that spelt the end of Palliser's term in office'.

Having got this far you might be able to deduce that 'A New Prince for the Royal Family' does not exactly overflow with royalist sentiments. In marked contrast is 'Ode to the Steampunk Girls', a heartfelt tribute to 'the Princess of dirigible maids', though I'm not sure if dirigible is a word to use when praising a woman. Still, the Cardinal was ever bold in his lyrics.

We return to the theme of Victorian squalor and violence in the short story 'Soho Leaves'. This is one of the best original Gothic tales I've read this year. The narrator reveals that 'the doctor found me amidst his drugs' you'll probably guess. Suffice to say that in this reworking of Stevenson's classic tale, a supposed monster is revealed as a hero, while the virtuous gentlemen of the establishment (including one who stays mysteriously young) are shown to be monstrous. It's clever but also an example of intelligent rage against injustice, and again the parallels with our own times are clear, if not laboured.

Finally comes 'Anime Mash-up', an exuberant retrospective that in a few lines ranges over much early horror, mystery, and science fiction as re-imagined by Japanese animators. Van Helsing stalks the Golem in Prague, Verne plans lunar expeditions, and Laputa is our destination. Amazing adventures, fascinating people, strange notions, and a passion for truth and justice. What more do you want?

If you would like a copy, follow the usual rigmarole:

Send a C5 SAE to

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay
Peterborough
PE2 5RB

You can also email the Cardinal at cardinalcox1@yahoo.co.uk

John Howard Interview

I've only met John Howard once (and that was probably enough for him), but he's a nice chap as well as a writer/genre expert whose tastes overlap with mine in some interesting areas. Anyway, here's an interesting interview with him.

I was particularly struck by this passage:

The future was going to be brighter, cleaner, safer. Slums were being demolished and new housing built. In some places the ruins caused by World War II were finally being swept away – in London there was the Barbican scheme and Route XI. Sleek motorways crossed the country. Jet airliners like vast metal birds flew overhead, and I watched the Apollo missions on TV. Now we know that new solutions give rise to new problems, but to this child it seemed that only challenge and wonder was in store.

I read comics and watched films and programmes on television which showed the marvellous buildings and world of the future, and I thought that one day I should see them and live in that world. Sometimes I feel that the bright future has been stolen, so perhaps I try to compensate for that loss in some of my stories.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Nice Person

An American reviewer has give a five star rating to my Kindle collection The Glyphs. I am very pleased. 
Excellent, well-written stories that are disturbing and unnerving rather than full-on horror. If you want something gourmet rather than fast-food, these are for you.


Tuesday, 19 May 2015

Authors at the BBC Archive

The BBC has a huge catalogue of interviews conducted for radio and television down the decades. I've been poking around in the archived items and so far haven't found any major revelations for fans of supernatural fiction. But there are a lot of interviews with authors whose work will be known to fans of the weird, the Gothic, and the fantastic. Here are a few links, but there are many more to be stumbled upon, I'm sure.



Daphne du Maurier (1971) takes you on a tour of her Cornish home.

T.H. White (1959) discusses Arthurian legends and folk tradition.

J.R.R. Tolkien (1968) talks about his life in Oxford and his immensely successful books.

Philip Pullman (2001) is also interviewed in Oxford about his immensely successful etc.

Elizabeth Bowen discusses the importance of character in fiction (1956).


Monday, 18 May 2015

Damned Rite: Melt

When I was a lad a seismic shift occurred in British horror fiction. For years the only living author of horror stories everyone heard of was Dennis Wheatley. Then, as the mid-Seventies became the late-Seventies, James Herbert burst onto the scene.

It's not easy for anyone under fifty to grasp how important Herbert was - he wrote horror that was not encumbered by the paraphernalia of snobbery. While Wheatley's world was aristocratic, replete with country houses and titled savants Herbert's was democratic, inhabited by career journalists, photographers, detectives - regular blokes, more or less.

Herbert also created a new format for the horror novel, one in which multiple perspectives are offered to the reader as a series of (usually very violent) events unfold. Wheatley's approach had been that of the old-school ghost story writ large, in which a small group of upper-crust characters navigate the dark waters of the occult. Herbert routinely produced a cast of characters, some important, some mere walk-ons, who gave his novels the impression of social breadth.

The 'Herbertian' approach is still very much with us, as Damned Rite: Melt demonstrates. Janine-Langley Wood's debut novel is set in contemporary Yorkshire on a run-down council estate where gangs are running amok. Indeed, the opening scene is a powerful description of a harmless young man who has been so callously bullied by teen thugs that he commits suicide in a way as improbable as it is unpleasant.

Things become significantly worse when the demolition of the local Catholic church leads to the release of an evil entity that's been entombed for centuries. Violence on the estate escalates and vigilante justice of a particularly grisly kind is meted out by a kind of supernatural avenger. Cue a series of set pieces in which baddies get their comeuppance in imaginatively nasty ways that are very reminiscent of scenes in Herbert's early novels, especially The Survivor and Shrine. No spoilers from me, but suffice to say that the monstrous entity that enjoys killing is well-realised and its methods are gory enough to satisfy the keenest splatter movie fan.

What the entity is gradually becomes apparent as the history of Rokerville is explored by the main character, a decent Catholic priest who has some problems with violence in his own past. Father Molloy is a sympathetic, well-rounded character who is confronted by what seems, at first, to be an angel in his church. The truth is more complex and problematic. It seems that during the Reformation a typically unpleasant bit of religious persecution took place in what is now Rokerville. The historical flashback is not especially convincing, it must said, as the author's strength lies in describing modern characters - scenes set in the grubby world of drug-dealing gang bosses and young thugs have the whiff of authenticity, and are leavened with some fairly dark humour.

Overall, Damned Rite: Melt is a strong debut which packs an old-fashioned punch, while tackling very modern issues. James Herbert, wherever he is, might well be pleased that his legacy is still very much alive. 

Friday, 15 May 2015

Supernatural Tales 30

I'm pleased to be able to announce the full list of contents for the Autumn issue, which will also be the thirtieth ST. Very few small-circulation short story magazines survive for thirty issues, and I'm delighted to have such a stellar line-up to mark the occasion. So here are the authors and the titles of their stories in alphabetical order:


Steve Duffy - 'Even Clean Hands Can Do Damage'

Adam Golaski - 'Wild Dogs'

Helen Grant - '30'

Michael Kelly - 'Tears from An Eyeless Face'

Lynda E. Rucker - 'An Element of Blank'

Mark Valentine - 'Vain Shadows Flee' 


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Manuscript Critiques for Novice Writers

I'm offering a service that might help aspiring short story writers polish up their work. See here for details.

Saturday, 9 May 2015

The Big Three-O

The thirties issue of Supernatural Tales is heaving into view, or taking shape on the slipway, or being fuelled preparatory to lift-offs - feel free to use your own image. But it's definitely coming, and it's a special issue. I went out like an optimistic fool and asked a few of the writers who've contributed to ST over the last decade and a half to contribute.

As a result the Supernatural Tales 30 will contain a broad range of fiction from authors from all 'eras' of the magazine. So there's a story from Steve Duffy, who graced the very first issue, and the ST d├ębut from Mark Valentine which constitutes a tribute to the late Joel Lane, who was very supportive of ST in its early years. Expect further announcements in the next month or so as contents are finalised.

Oh, and there's a cracking bit of cover art from Sam Dawson that goes rather well with a story that features a mysterious room, a series of tragic events, and a family with the implausible name of Longhorn...



Back Shuck on the Wireless



The Charles Parker Prize is awarded every year for the best student radio feature. The latest prize went to a short documentary about one of the most famous supernatural entities in English folklore - Black Shuck.

You can hear the entire radio show here on the iPlayer. The documentary 'Back Shuck - Hellhound of the East takes up the last twenty minutes of the show.

Black Shuck's finest hour, so to speak, took place back in 1577 when he appeared in a church at Bungay and munched on some parishioners. He then telepored a few miles to Blytheborurgh and committed more mayhem. Other accounts suggest the dog is a portent of death, or simply wanders about scaring people, or is even benevolent to lone travellers, especially women.

This may just be because people are describing, y'know, dogs. But the radio show is well worth a listen. I think it captures in a short space the essence of folklore, with its mixture of history, anecdote, humour, fear, and enduring mystery.

Friday, 8 May 2015

A sense of wrongness?

For reasons best known to my brain, I've been thinking about films/TV shows that just don't fit the standard pattern. They're not necessarily bad, just somehow 'not right'. They don't quite fit the accepted pattern and this can be rather jarring, even if script, performance, visuals etc are good.

Examples so far are Fulci's THE BLACK CAT (giallo set in England with a multinational cast), and Stephen Weeks' 1974 film GHOST STORY (filmed in India but set in England, starring Marianne Faithful). Oh, and there's the obscure pilot for a BBC Lovecraftian drama starring Paul Darrow from Blake's 7.

Any others spring to mind? Or am I being obscure/weird above and beyond?



The Shirley Jackson Awards

Congratulations to Simon Strantzas, whose collection Burnt Black Suns has been nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award. My review of it is here. Congratulations also to Michael Kelly, whose Shadows and Tall Trees has been nominated in the anthology category.

Full list of award nominees is on the SJA website here.


Wednesday, 6 May 2015

The Sea of Blood - Review

“Reggie Oliver, quite possibly our finest modern writer of spectral tales.” Ramsey Campbell

“…by miles, the best living exponent of the spooky yarn,” Barry Humphries



“I envy anyone who has yet to discover the elegant work of Reggie Oliver.. Some of the most powerful stories.. clearly show him moving beyond genre, addressing human relations with the heartbreaking power of a V. S. Pritchett, or William Trevor.”  Michael Dirda, The Washington Post


The Sea of Blood
Sometimes one wonders if a review might not be a tad superfluous, but here goes...

I first became aware of Reggie Oliver's work when ST was newly launched onto the turbulent seas of marginal genre publishing. I was very lucky when he submitted a story, 'Beside the Shrill Sea', which duly appeared in ST's fourth issue. It was his first published story and is also the first in this book, which gathers works from the author's six collections. It thus offers an excellent introduction to the fiction of a very significant writer of what's loosely termed weird fiction, with the added bonus that it contains previously unpublished material.

It's easy to see why Reggie Oliver's work is so popular. He has the patrician style of a modern M.R. James - that of an intelligent, well-read English gentlemen recounting odd incidents. His literary manner is formal, perhaps a little distant, and he usually writes in the first person. His stories often have (M.R.) Jamesian settings, notably English country houses and public schools. Interestingly, though, it is Algernon Blackwood that the author pays homage to in his introduction. Blackwood was not fixated upon horror so much as mystery and beauty.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Update on The Glyphs




As of this morning this collection of my stories was riding high at '#142,004 Paid in Kindle Store'! Eat your heard out, E.L. James! Thanks to everyone who downloaded it, free or paid for, and I hope you enjoy the stories. If you're not sure whether it's your cup of tea you can always download a free sample to read the first ten pages or so. This will at least demonstrate that there are words, many in the right order. And remember that dozens of issues of ST are also available to Kindlers, all quite reasonably priced (I think) at £0.99.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Dark Floors (2008)

Dark Floors.jpgLast night I watched the most expensive Finnish horror movie ever made. If you're not sure how to react to that, imagine how I feel.

Dark Floors stems directly from the victory of the flamboyant Finnish metal band Lordi in the Eurovision Song Contest. Surfing a (smallish) wave of international fame the rockers got enough financial backing for a fairly modest production, in which they appear as ghostly/monstrous entities. A writer credit goes to Mr. Lordi, the make-up and prosthesis expert who fronts the band.

The film was shot entirely in Finland with ordinary folk playing extras. Amputees were asked to volunteer to portray zombies, possibly the first such casting decision since Michael Winner's The Sentinel. On imdb the directing credits include the name Alan Smithee. Oh, and it was written in Finnish then translated into English to give the movie an international market.

If this sounds like a truly terrible, misguided, Eurotrash vanity project, well... Maybe it is. A bit. Dark Floors certainly isn't a brilliant horror film. But nor is it the colossal turkey one might expect. If it has flaws it's not the presence of four hairy rockers in outlandish costumes. No, it's just that Dark Floors resembles a lot of other low budget stalk 'n' slash flicks in which a group of disparate characters are trapped in a big building. This is just the first one to feature a Nordic version of Kiss.

The film has its virtues. Visually it's not bad at all, at first, when we see Ben (Noah Huntley) having trouble accepting the way the hospital's team are treating his autistic daughter Sarah (a very good performance by Skye Bennett). Ben decides to remove Sarah despite the wishes of her doctor and friendly nurse Emily (Dominique McElligott). The latter follows the pair into the elevator, where they are joined by a security guard and two patients. Predictably enough, the elevator journey is not routine. After bizarre and disturbing incidents the motley band emerge into a hospital that is no longer well-lit and bustling with activity. Yes, we're in a Grotty Building With  Lots of Corridors and Flickery Lights. Again.

Thus begins a familiar story involving people saying 'This can't be happening!', 'Let's stick together!', and 'We're going to get out of her!', spiced up with the less familiar 'Ooh, did anybody see where my disabled daughter went off to? In her wheelchair?' (twice). Here be nasty, snarly, screamy things glimpsed through frosted glass that they soon burst through to do menacing stuff. Those ever-inadequate strip lights flicker, people run about, doors are forced, medicine sought, stairways never lead to safety, and Guns Can't Stop Them.

Two things kept me watching. One was that the mostly British cast are rather good. Indeed, the role of the Scruffy Old Bloke Who Knows Something is taken by none other than Ronald Pickup, whose presence pleased me no end. The performances in general are above average and the cast play it straight. And a genuinely interesting ingredient is a time-twisting element that is somehow connected to Sarah's locked-in, frightening reality. I'm glad to say nobody tries to over-explain that's happened or why, but we do get a 'symbolic' ending that suggests a good deal. And yes, the Lordi chaps themselves make slightly naff monsters, but their elaborate prostheses do at least ring the changes on the usual off-the-shelf terrors found in this sort of thing. Put another way, I didn't actually laugh and it's only now, typing this, that I realise Lordi are basically Goth Klingons.

Like Eurovision itself, Dark Floors shouldn't work at all, so perhaps part of its charm is that it works most of the time. It's an unpretentious supernatural shocker that doesn't outstay its welcome and almost makes me want Mr. Lordi to have another go. Almost.




Saturday, 2 May 2015

Witch's Cradle

The Green Book

The Swan River Press over in Dublin's fair city publishes a fine journal dedicated to Irish Gothic, supernatural and generally weird fiction. The latest issue has (for me, at any rate) a bumper bundle of interesting items.



Contents

"Editor's Note"
Brian J. Showers

"Fitz-James O'Brien: The Seen and the Unseen"
by Kevin Corstorphine

"A Story-teller: Stevenson on Le Fanu"
Richard Dury

"Arthur Machen and J.S. Le Fanu"
James Machin

"Shape-shifting Dracula: The Abridged Edition of 1901"
Elizabeth Miller

"An Interview with Mervyn Wall"
Gordon Henderson

"Reviews"
Digby Rumsey’s Shooting for the Butler (Martin Andersson)
Wireless Mystery Theatre’s Green Tea (Jim Rockhill)
Dara Downey’s American Women’s Ghost Stories in the Gilded Age (Maria Giakaniki)
J.S. Le Fanu’s Reminiscences of a Bachelor (Robert Lloyd Parry)
Charlotte Riddell’s A Struggle for Fame (Jarlath Killeen)
Karl Whitney’s Hidden City (John Howard)

I'm particularly keen to read the item on Fitz-James O'Brien, whose story 'What Was It?' has long been a favourite of mine. It spans the Victorian haunted house genre and proto-science fiction, and if you don't know it, it's well worth a read.

There's a Buddhist Hell Theme Park...

It's in Thailand and, depending on your viewpoint, the exhibits are either horrifying or hilarious. Maybe a bit of both.

I've chosen to use some of the less extreme examples from the Movie Pilot article. But if you want to see a man having his enormous testicles attacked by dogs, by all means click on the link.

So, among the attractions, there's climbing a cactus while naked...




Being impaled - fun for the kiddies!




No real clue about this one.




Apparently the idea of this theme park is to raise money for Buddhist monks. I know - why can't they just brew some nice liqueurs for sale to tourists, like sensible Western monks? This is a prime example of what not drinking can do to you.

Friday, 1 May 2015

Inside No. 9

The second series of this excellent show by League of Gentlemen stars Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton is as enjoyable as the first. What the dynamic duo have done is re-invent the old anthology thriller/horror series as grotesque but oddly charming comedy. It's currently available to watch on the BBC iPlayer.

It's a pity that we only get six shows at a time instead of the much longer runs of earlier anthology series, but the basic format is traditional enough. Each time we get half an hour to watch the antics of a group of characters who are, in some sense, inside No. 9. The number in question may relate to a house, apartment, hotel room, railways sleeping car, or whatever. But the story always features a clever build up and a twist of some sort.

This may sound formulaic - well, comedy is inherently formulaic, when you think about it. But what Shearsmith and Pemberton manage to do every time is offer a different setting and atmosphere while staying true to a simple premise that they run with to a satisfying conclusion. Not surprisingly, given their obvious predilection for horror, two episodes of this latest series feature familiar scenarios. Dig the posters, by the way! You can download them from the show's web page.




'The Trial of Elizabeth Gedge' is set in 17th century England and takes us straight into the realms of folk horror (as in Witchfinder General). Two witchfinders arrive in the village of Little Happens, summoned by magistrate Sir Andrew Pike (a great cameo from David Warner). Mistress Gedge (the brilliant Ruth Sheen) stands accused of consorting with Satan. She is obviously being set up by her relatives for the most petty reasons. There's a lot of traditional yokel comedy, but also a genuine sense of how dangerous it was for anyone to oppose the prevailing witch mania. As in modern theocratic regimes, to question orthodoxy is invariably heresy. Oh, and a significant trial witness turns out to be a mouse in a bottle.





'Seance Time', the last of the current run, is also a love letter from the stars to the traditional horror movie. The opening scenes are straight out of any number of British horror movies from around 1970, but also nods to Hammer House of Horror and similar TV dramas. Alison Steadman's medium is a delight, as is her performance as a vain old thesp when it's revealed (quite early on) that the whole thing is a tacky hidden camera show. The host is a shallow bully who despises his fans and broods over the mishap that led to his original ITV series being cancelled. As a comment on modern television's low moral and intellectual standards it's spot on, but the horror element makes it memorable. In the final scenes, old-school entertainment turns round and bites the modern cheap-and-gormless school. Oh, and it's a good ghost story, full of the kind of touches that remind me why I actually like this stuff. Sometimes we need reminding.