Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Living and the Dead - BBC 2016

Well, that was quite a ride.

Stones! And the Old Ways are by no means past...

This six part BBC series, made partly in conjunction with BBC America, is certainly one of the most ambitious and successful examples of folk horror. It was created by Ashley Pharaoh, whose previous achievements include Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars.

Ingredients are as follows:

Attractive cast, with two eye-candy leads and a ton of old-school Brit supporting talent, including excellent child actors.

Visually beautiful - this is Hardy's Wessex turned even more dangerous and cruel than the man himself imagined it, an English landscape replete with beauty, pregnant with death. At its best TLATD looks like a wonderful arty Euro-film without ever becoming one. All credit to the hard-working team who must have slaved round the clock for some of these brief scenes.

Interesting plotting keeps your attention, with nothing simply shoved in there for effect. Characters behave as they would, and are not cardboard cutouts. Thus the local vicar, played by the brilliant Nicholas Woodeson, lets his teenage daughter Harriet read Darwin and Ibsen. He is outraged by the suggestion that ghosts and such might have real existence. This is the 19th century!

'She's brought fancy London ways and a bloody big traction engine, so she 'as'

Historical conflicts, essential to folk horror. Here comes Nathan Appleby (Colin Morgan) and his lovely young wife Charlotte (Charlotte Spencer), inheriting the run-down family estate of Shepzoy in Somerset in 1894. The 'new master' has modern notions and worked as a psychiatrist in London. His wife is into photography and is about as liberated as you can get in the age of the compulsory side-saddle. Nathan thinks a spur of the railway might help Shepzoy flourish again. Here comes the traction engine...

Moments of supernatural horror. The first episode hits the ground running when Harriet Denning is seemingly possessed by an evil spirit and does (or attempts) some truly disturbing things. Weirdness reaches levels that are just high enough to be credible. And in the very first episode there is a glimpse of something in the sky that throws the whole set-up into question.

Music. The soundtrack, by The Insects, offers a modern folk-rocky take on some traditional ballads. I'm no expert but I think the music fits the visuals perfectly. The theme is 'This One Night', a version of 'This Aye Nicht'.

'Excorcism? You trippin', bro!'

Humour. Not a huge amount, but there are llamas at one point. I fell about laughing at what I assume was a reference to Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Story arc. The 'real' story happens in more than one time, you come to suspect. There is a woman in red with a 'book of light' who seemingly haunts the Appleby house. But things are thrown into doubt by visions of Cromwellian troopers, a wise woman 'swum' as a witch, and many other folk horror ingredients.

It was quite a ride. And, as the final scene reveals, it's not by any means over yet.

British television at its best. Recommended.


Saturday, 25 June 2016

Wormwood 1

Those lovely fellow mortals at Tartarus Press have republished the first issue of Wormwood, an excellent journal devoted to all things weird and wondrous. Here is their press release, because I'm a bit tired and would rather cut and paste.

Dear All,
We are pleased to announce that we have reprinted Wormwood 1. This inaugural issue of our journal devoted to fantastic, supernatural and decadent literature contains the following:
'Gustav Meyrink: The Monster-Magician in Kafka’s Shadow' by Adam Daly'The Heroic Hereafter: Explaining Eddison' by Jonathan Preece'Ernest Bramah: A Challenge to the Biographer' by William Charlton'A Very Real Presence: Dame Muriel Spark, Briefly Interviewed''The Ninefold Kingdom and Others: Four Fictional Visions of the Political Future' by John Howard'Everything Ends in a Greater Blackness: Some Remarks on the Fiction of Thomas Ligotti' by Mark Samuels'The Decadent World-View' by Brian Stableford'Revisiting Ramsey Campbell' by William P. Simmons'Camera Obscura''Late Reviews' by Douglas A. Anderson
Wormwood 1 is available direct from our website for £9.99, including post and packing worldwide. It will also be available through the usual dealers.

Wednesday, 22 June 2016

The Living and the Dead - Episode 1

The title is the only dull thing about it. This new BBC series has the following synopsis.

'A brilliant young couple inherit the farm and are determined to start a new life together. But their presence in this isolated corner of England starts to unleash strange, unsettling and dangerous supernatural phenomena that will start to threaten their marriage.'


This doesn't state a few very important points. Firstly, we're in Victorian England, rural Somerset to be precise, in the age when steam power is still relatively new but photography is well-established and both psychology and Spiritualism are capturing the public's imagination. Light is provided by the sun in the daytime and candles or lamps at night. This is significant because director Alice Troughton makes excellent use of light and shade, offering a number of deeply Gothic images but also scenes of rural life - especially ploughing and harvesting - that recall adaptations of Hardy novels. (There's even a character called Bathsheba.)

The West Country, as usual, steps up to the plate and looks marvellous and the characters created by Ashley Pharaoh and Matthew Graham are convincingly diverse and interesting. The young couple at the heart of the drama, Nathan and Charlotte, are 'modern' Victorians in that they are allowed to have sexytime fun and act more or less as equals. This is not unbelievable, given what we know about many formidable Victorian ladies.

Indeed, after the first few minutes I thought to myself 'Aha! This is Thomas Hardy meets M.R. James', I soon adjusted this to 'The Exorcist written by Hardy', when an apparently possessed (or insane) teenage girl moves centre stage. All very interesting, and the central question - is Harriet, the vicar's daughter, really possessed? - is interesting enough. But then, midway through part one, there's a blink-and-you-miss-it moment in a churchyard that throws open other possibilities. And, sure enough, the first episode ends with a revelation that made me think 'Aha! Nigel Kneale!'

This is a good-looking and intelligent show with a lot going for it. There are moments of genuine, if understated, horror, and some splendid set pieces, not least the midsummer bonfire ceremony that sets it firmly slap-bang in the folk horror tradition. Of course over six episodes it may fail and disappoint. But I doubt it on the basis of this confident opener. And the entire run is now available to watch as a BBC Box Set on the iPlayer.


Monday, 20 June 2016

Happy Solstice! (Don't Sacrifice Anybody, It's All Down To Impersonal Physical Laws)



I like some of these words very much. 'Sunstay' is excellent. Isn't English generally great at stuff like words?

Trying to think positive thoughts about England.

Sentinels - now available in paperback and ebook formats

My novella Sentinels, a homage* to M.R. James, is available here if you like that sort of thing.

I don't normally refer to 'real world' stuff here, but the launch of my first book doesn't feel like a big deal. Not compared to the terrible things happening to good people in the name of bigotry and ignorance.

Still, anyone feeling the need for a bit of light escapism might like it, I suppose.


Update - here I am reading an extract from the book, possibly with the opposite of the desired effect, who knows?




*'homage' in this context means "If he was still alive I'd need a very good lawyer."

Saturday, 18 June 2016

Spirit Paintings

Here's a fascinating piece on a Victorian artist who may have been the first abstract painter. Georgiana Houghton is almost unknown today, but in her time she was a sensation because she claimed to be producing new work by famous dead painters. Not surprisingly, some suggest that this was a mental trick she played on herself to 'justify' a woman pushing the boundaries of art. See what you think.

The Eye of God by Georgiana Houghton

The Eye of the Lord by Georgiana Houghton

A detail from Glory Be to God by Georgiana Houghton

Saturday, 11 June 2016

'Vain Shadows Flee' included in Best British Short Stories 2016

The special thirtieth issue of ST is the gift that keeps on giving. I'm very proud that it has spawned such a fine collection of award nominees and 'Best Of' inclusions.

The latest accolade is for Mark Valentine's tribute to the late Joel Lane. 'Vain Shadows Flee' has been included by Nicholas Royle in his anthology Best Short Stories 2016, from Salt.

Congratulations to Mark for an accolade that, I think, is a little belated, as he's been writing finely-crafted short fiction for quite a while now. And of course if you want to read the story you don't have to buy the anthology, because ST 30 is still available, hint, hint...


Thursday, 9 June 2016

Lost Hearts and Sleepless Nights

Up-and-coming author Chloe N. Clark has an interesting article about M.R. James and the influence he exerted over her younger self.
James is, among many things, one of the finest ghost story writers of all time. His ability to slowly raise dread and create truly horrific depictions in a few pages is, for the most part, unrivaled. When I lecture about horror, which I’m wont to do in front of classrooms, I usually make the argument that there are essentially two ways to make truly effective horror: through dread and through awe. Awe-based horror is the essential feeling of something otherworldly or “wrong.” Dread-based horror is, just as it sounds, the slow building of tension that creates a mounting feeling of dread or terror. Most good horror, in my opinion, does one or the other of these (if not, sometimes, both). James often managed to convey both of these kind of horrors.

PAGAN TRIPTYCH - Review

When I learned that Sarob Press were going to issue a book consisting of three novellas paying homage to Algernon Blackwood (following the success of their Machen tribute, Romances of the the White Day) I was pleased. But I also wondered which Blackwood they would pay homage to? Because in a very long career Blackwood did write a lot of stories and novels, and while there are certain common ideas in his work,  he did range more widely than, say, Machen or M.R. James.

I'm pleased to report that in Pagan Triptych Ron Weighell, John Howard, and Mark Valentine do indeed explore different aspects of Blackwood's legacy. In the first novella, 'The Letter Killeth', Weighell explores the world of arcane knowledge and shadowy conflict between occult forces. A sinister figure (something of a Karswell, in fact) demands to view a collection of unusual items bequeathed to a college. A polite refusal leads to a curse and attempts to protect the innocent family targeted lead into some very dark and erudite byways. While more complex than the John Silence stories this novella is like them in spirit - occult detection and doing the decent thing are both to the fore.

'In the Clearing' by John Howard couldn't be more different. Here a City chancer who's got rich by dodgy methods is sent on gardening leave to a cottage in rural England. Howard's self-centred protagonist encounters the numinous forces of nature in old woodland, and in the person of a gardener who communes with the trees. It's a rich, rewarding story that affirms - as Blackwood often did - that we are less monstrous and more truly ourselves if we set aside most of the paraphernalia of civilisation and see the world as it is, rather than as a source of power or wealth.

'The Fig Garden' by Mark Valentine introduced me to the splendid word figgery. It is the only story set in the historical past, the 'Blackwood era' of early 20th century Britain. Its protagonist works for an organisation that protects national monuments and is therefore constantly pestered by eccentrics/nutcases. But what category does Mr Scaramander fall into? He wants to classify certain parts of the landscape as monuments and argues that they are, in a sense, doorways to Atlantis - not the lost continent of Doug McClure fame, but something altogether more strange and numinous. All of these novellas require re-reading, I think, but fir me 'The Fig Garden' is the most subtle and difficult to assess on first acquaintance. This is a tribute to the Blackwood of mysticism who (in 'Sand' for instance) attempted to conjure up the essence of an entire culture through visionary fable.

Considered as a whole this is a remarkable book, offering a broad sweep of weird fiction. I don't think Blackwood would be unhappy to have his name linked with any of these works.

There is, as always, an excellent Paul Lowe cover.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Forthcoming Books

The Haunter (The Sentinels Series Book 2) by [Longhorn, David]


The Smog (The Sentinels Series Book 3) by [Longhorn, David]

The first book in this series of three linked (but can be read as standalone) novellas is now available on Amazon for Kindle, print edition to follow shortly.

Sentinels (The Sentinels Series Book 1) by [Longhorn, David]

Monday, 6 June 2016

Lovecraft Tarot

Over on the fascinating DevianArt site, a person going by the name of Tillinghast23 has produced much of interest (to me, and I'm sure to many others). Their art is mostly monochrome and marvellous.

There's a Lovecraft Tarot that's great fun.






Friday, 3 June 2016

Quatermass!

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"London calling!"

One of the best TV shows of all time seems to be on the way back. (Skip down to the link if you know all this stuff already.)

Quatermass began on nascent BBC television in 1953 and ran  to three serials (not series) in the Fifties. Each serial was divided into six episodes of just over thirty minutes each. The scripts were by the Manx writer Nigel Kneale, whose first and only collection of short stories won a prestigious literary award before he moved on to radio work, then television. Kneale summed up the first three 'classic' serials in terms of how we encounter some other, arguably superior, alien life form: 'We go to them, they come to us, they've always been here'. Simple, as good ideas often are.

Each serial was adapted as a movie by Hammer and the first, The Quatermass Xperiment, essentially launched Hammer horror as it was to become known. The third movie adaptation, Quatermass and the Pit (1967) is one of the best Hammer films and for my money rates as the best British sf/horror film of all time. (In America the Hammers were retitled The Creeping Unknown, Enemy From Space, and Five Million Years to Earth.)

And now BBC America is to make a new Quatermass show, scripted by Jeremy Dyson. I feel very 'up' about this, not because everything is guaranteed to go well, but because if you're going to do a British sf show involving aliens and such, Mr. Dyson seems like a splendid choice. Like all the League of Gentlemen he has a grasp of Gothic and grotesque that should serve him well. Indeed, Mark Gatiss might make a very good Quatermass, though the way things are on British telly these days I think we may well get a Quaterbatch.

While not supernatural tales the Quatermass stories were deeply weird. This is despite the fact that the hero invariably solved the threat facing humanity by more-or-less scientific means. The first story is a classic monster movie blended with a locked room mystery, the second a rather grim conspiracy thriller involving meteorites and mind control (which inspired the classic Doctor Who adventure 'Spearhead from Space'), while the third story combines elements of full-on supernatural fiction with somewhat Lovecraftian ideas about the origins of our species.

A fourth serial simply entitled Quatermass was produced by ITV in the late Seventies starring Sir John Mills as  the eponymous boffin, and while it was not as exciting as the first three it was still full of ideas and made for fine drama. There was also a radio series, The Quatermass Tapes, starring Andew Keir, reprising his role from QatP.

So, we have a fine writer taking on a genuinely great British TV franchise. The stakes are high, as are expectations. But, having briefly met Jeremy Dyson and heard a lot about him, I'm sure he's the right man for the job. Keep it weird, Jeremy. 



Thursday, 2 June 2016

Huldra


hulder_collab_by_am_markussen-2Here is an entertaining and informative article on huldras, the mysterious and often seductive tailed folk of Scandi forests. The huldra is described as a beautiful woman with a tail that sometimes peeps out from under her peasant attire, but sometimes she's just full-on naked and lures unwary Nordic chaps to what may be their doom. However, as with all such beings there are many and varied ways in which they are said to interact with us mortals.

Some huldra or huldrekarl are inherently deceptive and evil, but many respond to the treatment they receive. If treated kindly, they have been known to use their magic to help humans and solve their problems. If treated unkindly, they can be hateful and vengeful. Much like any other being in the world.
The forest huldras were held to be kind to colliers (wood burners that make charcoal) and watched their charcoal kilns while they rested. The colliers knew that she would wake them if there were any problems. This allowed the to sleep and be rested. In exchange for her help they left provisions for her in a special place.
Fans of the Norwegian film Thale will already know that it takes the huldra myth and runs with it in an interesting way.  It remains one of the best folk horror movies of recent years, not least because of the way it gives the huldra 'magical' powers that make sense and work well in the context of plot and characterisation. I've recommended Thale before. If you haven't seen it, give it a try! Fans of Nordic noir will appreciate the twists it gives the genre.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

John Carpenter on Eighties Horror

Spoiler alert - he thought most of it wasn't very good.

You can see his interview at Terror Time. Here are some choice quotes.
“One springs from an organic idea and has a truly artist’s eye working.” He continued on, comparing Friday The 13th and Texas Chainsaw “And Friday the 13th, I feel, affects me as very cynical. It’s very cynical moviemaking. It just doesn’t rise above its cheapness. I think the reason that all these slasher movies came in the ’80s was a lot of folks said ‘look at that Halloween movie. It was made for peanuts, and look at the money it’s made! We can make money like that. That’s what the teenagers want to see.’ So they just started making them, cranking them out…most of them were awful.”
Of course 'most of them were awful' is a verdict that can readily be offered on almost any decades genre offerings. But I do think he has a point about the Eighties. Very few of the horror movies of that period have worn well. Yet much of the science fiction has endured and some - Blade Runner, The Terminator, Aliens, Close Encounters - are regarded as classics of their kind. They set templates and standards in a way that Seventies horror did.

Perhaps that's the real issue, that the ground-breaking work in horror film had already been done by Carpenter and others in the mid-to-late Seventies, leaving the way open for hacks to rip-off all the money-spinning tropes. Oh well. One of my favourite horror movies is an old-school ghost story that kicked off the Eighties. If only that standard had been maintained.