Friday, 30 September 2016

The Art of Abigail Larson

My earlier post about Lovecraftian stuff on deviantART prompted me to look again at the superb work of Abigail Larson, who's been producing original pictures zand illustrating classics of horror fiction for over ten years. You can see a huge portfolio of her work on the site here.

Here are a few samples of her work to persuade you to mosey on over and enjoy lots more. As usual, click on the image to enlarge it to full biggosity.



The Black Cat


The House of Usher

Apology for the delay to ST#33

I'm sorry that the autumn issue of ST is still stuck in limbo. The problem is that I order a bulk shipment for all those subscribers who, for whatever reason, don't want to buy the magazine online from the Lulu website.

Unfortunately this time the printer (with whom I have no direct contact) has simply not delivered the box of magazines within the normal c.10 day period. Add to that that I was a little late in getting this issue on the road and we have a major delay.

I have complained to the website and if I don't get satisfaction I'll have to take my custom elsewhere, probably to Amazon's print-on-demand service. (I know, Amazon, lots of people hate it, but I need to get the job done.)

Sorry. Rest assured ST#33 will turn up, eventually. In the meantime, I've decided to make the print issue available to buy online. Here it is.


New tales of the supernatural by Sean Padraic McCarthy, Tim Foley, Sam Dawson, Tom Johnstone, Rosalie Parker, Keith Coleman, and Jane Jakeman.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Mermaid Championships Held in Germany

gettyimages-482102284.jpg


Yes, mermaids are apparently quite big now, thanks (I assume) to Disney. As supernatural creatures go they've got horror potential, of course, but in fiction they generally tend to be cute and whimsical. Anyway, the question we are all asking today is, what are Germany's top mermaids up to?
Merfolk-fanatics between eight and 48 years old attended the event in the town of Suhl in southern Thuringia which organizers claimed was the first ever German national championship in mermaid swimming, also referred to as "mermaiding". 
And especially competitors from the lower half of the Bundesrepublik proved that they had thoroughly analysed Disney's The Little Mermaid.
Well, there you go. Congratulations to the plucky winners, who (wait for it) clearly got into a flap in the best possible sense.
“Merthletes” from Bavaria, Thuringia and Baden-Württemberg brought in two wins for each state, as children competed over 50m and adults over twice that distance.
Lotta Müller from Bavaria took gold in the highest-represented and fiercely-contested category of eight- to nine-year-olds, while Alexander Sengpiel also of Bavaria only had to out-flap a few other men to come in first in the adult competition.
 All good, wet, harmless fun.

Germany holds first national 'mermaiding' championship

Saturday, 24 September 2016

'West of Arkham the hills rise wild...'

I spend a lot of time at deviantART looking for interesting pictures of spaceships, monsters, and other stuff. That's how I roll. If you don't know the site, it's essentially a forum for everyone to post art of all kinds, from photography to oil painting. And it's not surprising that classic horror fiction provides inspiration for many 'deviants'.

This chap is a case in point. He's produced some excellent, atmospheric illustrations to Lovecraft's stories, among other things.

Uncanny Valley...

Friday, 23 September 2016

'The Mask of the Dead Mamilius'

And here we are at the end of the Third G&S Book of Shadows with Mark Valentine's take on one of M.R. James' lesser, and later, tales. Not exactly a sequel, this, but an erudite take on the same Shakespeare passage that James used to good effect.

The story concerns Lorna, an ambitious and discerning actress who takes a role in The Winter's Tale as Mamilius (who is a boy, yes, it's one of those clever modern productions). As you may know, Mamilius is the only one of Leontes' victims who actually dies as a result of his irrational jealousy - the paranoid tyrant's wife and daughter are merely reported dead. There is something disturbing about this, and the fact that the poor lad is whisked away while in the act of telling a ghost story is apt.

This vignette is, among other things, a meditation upon mortality and the way a good work of fiction can remind us of it in the most effective, and sometimes harrowing, way. And that's as good a conclusion as any to a collection of tales about the dead and their disturbing antics! I've greatly enjoyed third anthology, and can heartily recommend it, and its two predecessors, to anyone who wants interesting and varied takes on some of the best ghost stories ever written.

Rendlesham

River Deben
M.R. James country. Flat, yet with plenty of cover where Things can lurk...

Fans of Monty James' ghost stories will know what, in 'A Warning to the Curious', he refers to a Saxon crown being unearthed at Rendlesham on the East Anglian coast many centuries ago. Well, it seems that a bit more digging has been going on in that area, and the result is a major archaeological find.
About 4,000 items, including intricate metalwork, coins and weights, have been found at Rendlesham. About 1,000 of them are Anglo-Saxon, Ms Minter said. 
Dr Helen Geake of the British Museum said while the "palace" find was "incredibly exciting", it could be one of a number dotted around East Anglia. 
"There would have been quite a few of these palaces or halls dotted around," she said. 
"The king [of the time] would have toured his kingdom in order to show his magnificence to his people, so he would have had lots of places to base himself around East Anglia."
Rendlesham is of course not far from Sutton Hoo, where a major Anglo-Saxon find occurred in 1939, just three years after MJR died. So far as we know, ghostly guardians have not been going around knocking off hapless antiquarians as a result of either excavation.

Sutton Hoo warrior's helmet
Sutton Hoo helmet with someone keeping a close eye on it. You never know.

One Week Left to Vote!


It's unlikely that any of the above will result from your voting in the Best Story Poll for issue 32, to be honest, but I just thought I'd mention them on general principles. Remember, there's just one Earth week to go before the poll closes and some lucky author wins the almost unimaginable sum of twenty-five English pounds. (At the rate things are going over here that'll be roughly twenty-five dollars and/or Euros.)

So vote, because authors appreciate being appreciated, and the more feedback I get about ST the more worthwhile publishing it seems.

And you never know...

Image result for excitement adventure and really wild things

Thursday, 22 September 2016

'Blackberry Time'

We've reaches the penultimate tale in the Third G&S Book of Shadows and find ourselves in the capable hands of Ghosts & Scholars stalwart Peter Bell. The original M.R. James story is, again, apparent to the expert from the title. It's the same tale as that exploited by D.P. Watt, in fact, but Bell's approach is very different.

The title comes from a painting fondly recalled by a man looking back at childhood holidays in the countryside. Blackberrying (which I, too, remember well from my distant youth) was all the more pleasant for the unnamed narrator thanks to his friendship with a bright, adventurous girl called Freda Devlin. The Devlins, a family consisting of Freda, her mother, and her grandmother, were not quite respectable, but exactly why is unclear.

From Freda the boy learns about the history of the area, and especially the worship of pagan gods that took place on a particular hill. She persuades him to make a symbolic offering to a solar deity, which seems to summon up a ghost. Eventually changing circumstances separate the friends, until a chance meeting in the gallery where they have both come to admire the painting.

This is an enigmatic tale told in a traditional manner, ending in ambiguity while at the same time offering glimpses of horror. The final image is as surprising as its is dark.

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Einstein's God Model (2016)

Einstein's God Model PosterHere's an interesting indie movie that takes a valiant stab at something that's preoccupied many fine writers over the decades. Is it possible to take a scientific approach to life after death?

The story begins in 2002, and an experiment in which two scientists hook up a hapless student volunteer to what looks like a very old fashioned stereo system combined with a brain scanner. It is in fact a machine built back between the wars by no less than Thomas Alva Edison. It is device designed to help contact the dead, via an old-style Bakelite telephone. And it works. Sort of.

We move forward to the present day and find Brayden Taylor, a young anaesthetist, coming to terms with the death of his girlfriend, Abbey. A chance conversation with a colleague leads Brayden to look into the effects of ketamine on perception. The drug was used in unethical experiments a few years ago by a brilliant physicist who has since disappeared.

It takes a while for the principal characters to be teamed up for the next bit attempt to cross the ultimate divide. The gang includes Craig, the original subject/victim, blinded by his first brush with the machine and now working as a medium on evangelical TV channels. There are some good performances, notably from Kenneth Hughes as Meistenbrock, the cold-fish boffin trying to improve on Edison's design. Hughes has a lot of tough sledding as he exposits like a boss, revealing what Einstein's God Model is, and how it fits with M-theory and superstrings. This is a sci-fi paranormal movie that does hang together and doesn't insult its audience.

The climax is, of course, Brayden being strapped into the chair, wired up to Edison's dodgy machine, and having his bloodstream pumped full of crazy-juice. Cue some fairly impressive effects, given the limited budget, which attempt to demonstrate the soul's journey to another realm. And that ends one story, and begins another.

This is not a glossy Hollywood production, but it's pretty stylish nonetheless. There are some shocking and moving moments, and a few neat twists. A strong supporting cast includes Brayden's dog, who almost steals the show a few times. And the opening credits are amusing, just tongue-in-cheek enough to lure in the nerds. Try and catch this one if you can.

'We Don't Want for Company'

Third G&S Book of Shadows mostly contains conventional short stories, but this fine vignette by D.P. Watt breaks the mould by offering one side of a dialogue. The scene is the countryside at night, the setting a campfire where a garrulous character is about to start cooking a rabbit. It's clear that this talkative gentleman has antiquarian interests and is preparing for some significant event. But what part will his guest, who we know little about (and that all at second hand), be playing?

I like the way Watt creates an atmosphere from very few, relatively simple phrases, drawing a clear contrast between the characters and implying that some great scheme is being played out. I won't indulge in spoilers but experts on M.R. James will know the story to which this is a sequel from the title. It's one of the Provost's lesser known tales but also one of his most enigmatic.

Well, this running review of the book is approaching its end. I hope you're enjoying it, and that you feel moved to get your hands on a copy. Here's a reminder of that excellent Paul Lowe cover.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

'The Brooch'

John Ward's story in Third G&S Book of Shadows is very much a tale of modern Britain, with its hapless expert on Anglo-Saxon recruited by a Russian oligarch's PA/mistress to translate an ancient manuscript. Needless to say this leads our scholar into deep waters, which is ironic as he is afraid his seaside cottage is going to fall into the sea due to coastal erosion.

The feel of the story is close to that of a modern horror movie, thanks in part to the use of CCTV footage to reveal a mysterious presence in the oligarch's luxury home. And yet it also owes a lot to the epistolary tradition of the ghost story that so many authors - MRJ included - put to such good use. It's a neat little story, not spectacularly disturbing but well-executed and interesting.

Yet again, then, a distinct change of mood compared to the previous tale, making this anthology just as varied as its predecessors. It just goes to show that when you offer good ideas to good writers, you get a lot of top-notch material.

Monday, 19 September 2016

'The Second Crown'

Katherine Haynes' contribution to the Third G&S Book of Shadows recalls the classic BBC Ghost Stories for Christmas, rather than M.R. James' original story. We're in East Anglia, and the reference to a Saxon palace under the sea in 'A Warning to the Curious' provides the central idea. Haynes' protagonist, Laura, enjoys underwater archaeology with her lover, Jack. But when Laura becomes pregnant unexpectedly and decides to keep the child her relationship with Jack becomes problematic. Especially when he decides to go after a big, valuable find...

The clever twist here is one I won't give away, but it makes sense in the context of the original story. The second Saxon crown proves to have a guardian, and should be returned. This much anyone can infer. But how will the tale unfold? What happens is interesting, not least because it left me guessing to the very end. Laura's increasing distress is well-realised, as is Jack's selfish, cavalier attitude. But it's to a minor character that the final scene belongs in a nice evocation of the beauty and mystery of the coastline that inspired Monty so many years ago.

Sunday, 18 September 2016

'Bone Matter'

David A. Sutton's contribution to the Third G&S Book of Shadows is a first, in that I didn't guess which M.R. James story it was a sequel to for several pages. This may be down to my own gormlessness, of course. But I like to think it's mostly down to the author's skill!

The story begins with Richard, a sensible young chap, in hot pursuit of a sexy young woman he met at a music festival. Trying to find Serena leads him into the wilds of Herefordshire where he believes she is walking in the vicinity of a particular town. Exploring, Richard visits the local museum and finds some interesting relics, all man-made but in rather different ways...

I can't go into details without giving away too much. No spoilers from me, no sir. Suffice to say Sutton handles the supernatural thriller with true Jamesian aplomb, and there are some excellent scenes as Richard starts to doubt his senses. Encounters in an apparently deserted church are particularly well-handled. The ghostly world closes in on a protagonist who has no real idea what's going on. But we do. And offers a subtle, pleasing terror of a kind the Provost himself would not, I think, have found unacceptable.


Friday, 16 September 2016

Charles L. Grant Blogathon

Sometimes good writers are forgotten. As are good editors, of course. Charles L. Grant wrote some wonderful fiction, particulary (for me) his short stories about Oxrun Station, a strange town where weird stuff happened. He helped define quiet horror back in the Eighties with his fiction and by editing some of the most influential - and readable - anthologies of the decade.

So, celebrate Grant by moseying on over to the blogathon being held in his memory. The contributors include Lynda E. Rucker, whose thoughts on Grant are here.

14194284_10208452468722357_2081263356_n

'Another Episode of Cathedral History'

One of the undeniable attractions of M.R. James' ghost stories is there nostalgia value. This can be embraced, played down, subverted, and generally played about with. I think playful is the best term for Peter Holman's contribution to The Third G&S Book of Shadows. It's set in the Swinging Sixties, and is replete with the joys and contradictions of that era.

Palmer, a hippie-ish musicologist, arrives in Barchester to research material on a neglected composer, Sheringham, who seems to have been driven out of the cathedral city following a Victorian scandal. It transpires that Sheringham was a somewhat proto-Decadent figure who, despite being cathedral organist, produced some distinctly irreligious works. Palmer, aided by the current organist Steve Winwood (no relation), discovers that Barchester's pagan traditions are as vibrant in the Beatles Era as were in the days of Archdeacon Haynes.

This is a very enjoyable story, though the horror is muted in favour of a light-hearted exploration of what English traditions are and how they are interpreted. The quasi-Decadence of the Sixties with its cultural experimentation plus drugs, booze 'n' birds paralleled the boundary-pushing of many Victorian eccentrics and rebels. The finale sees another scandal erupt as Palmer and Winwood lead a kind of Comus Rout through the streets of the venerable, fictional city.

Again, this represents a major change of mood and approach on the previous story, and shows how well editor Ro Pardoe has selected her material. It also demonstrates how significantly M.R. James continues to inspire authors in the 21st century, just as he did in the 20th.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

'The Man in the Rose Bush'

And now, by way of contrast, a bit of modern quiet horror from the American master Steve Rasnic Tem. Editor Ro Pardoe has done a spiffing job with the Third G&S Book of Shadows, in that so far every story has been very different in tone from the one before. It is beautifully written, in deceptively straightforward language.

'The scene bore the suggestion of time rolling back, reaching some pleasant nostalgic point, but then continuing a bit too far.'

An American single mother, Elaine, takes her son Roger on a tour of British stately homes and castles. Roger is an excitable lad, and we can infer from Elaine's recollections that he has ADHD. She doesn't want to put her son on medication, and as a result he can be a bit over-excitable. Thus when they arrive at Westfield Hall Elaine tries to make sure Roger isn't over-stimulated by talk of olde worlde violence, especially that involving the sinister Sir William Scroggs.

This is a touching and subtle story, focusing on Elaine's love for Roger and the emotional toll it takes on her when she realises he is under some sort of strange influence. The immediacy of the past, the way in which it can possess us, is there in Roger's love of Britain's colourful history. The other side of the coin is the idea that we can never escape past evils because they linger in some form or other.

Another first rate story, one that's apparently slight but which lingers in the memory and demands re-reading.

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

'Tempus Edax Rerum'

"Have you ever been to Viborg?"

Thus begins John Llewellyn Probert's contribution to the Third G&S Book of Shadows. And with that straightforward question one might expect a fairly routine take on 'Number 13', perhaps involving a modern academic going to the Danish city and poking about a bit. Well, that does happen - but not in the way even the most ardent M.R. James fan might expect.

What Probert has done is rejig the original tale so as to make it a wonderful, madcap piece of old-school pulp fiction, straight out the pages of magazines with titles like Amazing Wonder Stories or Fantastic Tales of Spatial Adventure. On one level it's a flight of fancy, on the other it makes the valid point that the original 'Number 13' is founded on a series of assumptions that fall apart if you view the tale from a different angle. And I'm all for that kind of thing.

I can't really say more without giving the whole plot away, and I know some people hate spoilers. But if you want some idea of where the author is coming from, and how playful but erudite his take on weird fiction is, you could check out his film review blog. It's great fun, and very informative.

Tomorrow, I look at a very different kind of 'Jamesian' story...

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

'A Gap in Society'

The second story in the new Ghosts & Scholars Book of Shadows is by John Howard. And it's another riff on 'Lost Hearts'. What, two in a row? Isn't that asking for trouble? Well, no, because Howard's take on the story couldn't be more different from that of Clive Ward.

Here the point of view is that of a boy living on the margins of contemporary society, in a caravan with his dad. They have neighbours - a Roma father called 'Carol' and his son Boian. The two men are employed by a dodgy local businessman who, we gradually realise, is guilty of more than the usual exploitation of migrant labour. Meanwhile, Boian has made friends with two children, one of them Roma, who haunt the town of Aswarby...

This is not a convential Jamesian pastiche, but instead uses 'Lost Hearts' to make some sound observations n the bigotry and greed that divides modern Britain. The fate of the villain is never really in doubt once the set-up is established, but it's a very well-crafted story and I enjoyed it. Howard strikes the balance between restraint and passion, here, in a way that's at odds with James' style. But, as I said, it's not a pastiche.

Monday, 12 September 2016

Coming Soon


'Twenty Years Afterwards'

The first story in the Third G&S Book of Shadows is by C.E. (Clive) Ward, a veteran of Ghosts & Scholars. Ward's approach is traditional, and his grasp of history makes him a particular convincing modern Jamesian author. His choice of story is 'Lost Hearts', and he cleverly uses the sequel device to offer some new insights into the bloody antics of Mr Abney.

As the title implies, the action begins twenty years after the demise of the villain at Aswarby Hall. Stephen Elliott is contacted by Abney's former butler, who is dying and wants to unburden himself. Ward essentially conducts a re-examination of the known facts in the original story and arrives at some interesting conclusions.

This is a satisfying start to the collection, marred only by the obvious problem with any long-ish story framed as a death-bed confession. At some point a dying man might simply go 'Aaaaggh!' and leave a few loose ends. But that's a minor quibble. Fans of 'Lost Hearts' (which James himself disliked) will appreciate this fresh take.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

October is Submissions Month for ST!

Yes, from 1st to the 31st of October you, the writer of fiction, can send submissions to me via the electronic mail machine. Guidelines are in the usual place, see above.

I have no idea how long it will take me to read and reply to stories, but with luck it shouldn't be more than a couple of months.

'The Haunting House'

The final story in Lynda E. Rucker's new collection from the Swan River Press is previously unpublished. It takes the classic theme of the person haunted by a dream and plays with it. In this case the dream is of a house, apparently deserted, through which the dreamer moves. But then, one night, she senses a presence in the dream-house that was never there before...

As Lisa Tuttle says in her introduction to the book: 'It is the conjunction of believable characters and real places, convincingly depicted, that gives these stories their emotional power and makes the strangest of events seem almost inevitable.' In 'The Haunting House' Lucy, estranged from her family and with no friends, struggles with reality but finds sleep comforting, not least when it takes her to the empty house. Her passive approach to life eventually leads her out into the Oregon wilderness, where the house - or something like it - can be found.

Like so many Rucker characters Lucy is cut off from any support network that might stop her drifting over the edge of... what? Reality? She seems to be the victim, but perhaps she is simply fated to be cut off from everyone in the most effective way possible, by ceasing to exist. The way it happens is clear enough, why it happens is implied, but in the end it's the story that matters, and this is an excellent end to a superb collection.


Preacher Renewed

The disappointment I felt at the cancellation of The Living and the Dead by the BBC has been somewhat assuaged by my discovery that the excellent Preacher has been granted a second season of 13 episodes. (The first season had 10.)

Having just re-watched the show I can only say it it mproves on a second viewing. The town of Annville, Texas, with its population of assorted dingbats, perverts, lunatics, and militant atheist businessmen (yes, really) is wonderfully evoked. The central characters, most of them played by British actors, are intriguing examples of flawed humanity - or, in one case, flawed vampirosity. And the supporting cast, which is often the deal-breaker for me, is superb. This is a series in which a character who is always dead drunk and sometimes has his pants stolen is more interesting than the protagonists of lesser shows.

So, check out Preacher if you feel that way inclined. Seldom has a show about religion, free will, and the existential choices we are compelled to make or avoid been so much fun. Here are some clips of extreme fictional violence and some people talking about the show.

Friday, 9 September 2016

'This Time of Day, This Time of Year'

One of the pleasures of reading You'll Know When You Get There is the discovery of excellent American short stories that happen to involve the weird, the ghostly, the supernatural. This particular example is an object lesson in how less can be more in the hands of a skilled author.

Josie returns home to small-town Georgia after serving in Iraq. Her little sister Ellen is pleased at first, then realises that Josie has changed. PTSD seems the obvious explanation for Josie's tetchiness, sleepwalking, and general lack of engagement with her family and the life she knew before being sent overseas. However, Josie then asks Ellen to come to a family cabin on Sorrow Lake, and things take a strange turn.

Beneath the lake lies what's left of the old town of Hekate, founded in the early years of the US. Local lore has it that the town was somehow not right, with escaped slaves talking about a bizarre cult and unholy sacrifices. Josie spends a lot of time underwater, swimming through the sunken town. She invited Ellen to join her. Then, one night, Josie goes out swimming alone, and is never seen again. Ellen dreams of Hekate, its strange church. She discovers the origin of the name. And she feels compelled to return to Sorrow Lake.

This is quiet horror as first-rate literature. To the end I was left guessing by many things. Firstly, there's the symbolism of Josie's military service, the way in which it puts so many ordinary American families at the heart of their nation's power and yet renders them powerless. Hekate might symbolise the unwritten or forgotten story of America's failures, drawing damaged individuals like Josie to it. But there is much here to ponder in a superficially simple tale. Suffice to say I was gripped from the first word to the last, and not a word in between was wasted.




THE GHOSTS & SCHOLARS BOOK OF SHADOWS VOLUME 3



The illustration is by Paul Lowe. Good, isn't it?

Sarob Press has kindly sent me a review copy of the latest volume of prequels/sequels to M.R. James tales. I will real-time review it after I finish the Lynda E. Rucker collection from Swan River.

Anyway, you can find out more about the book here. The list of contributors is very encouraging!

Thursday, 8 September 2016

'The Wife's Lament'

This story in Lynda E. Rucker's new collection first appeared in ST, and therefore it must be good. Well of course I liked it, and read it a few times as an editor. Re-reading it in its proper place, between hard covers amid other Rucker stories, I can now appreciate it as part of her distinctive oeuvre. She has written many tales of lonely, slightly confused women who go on some kind of quest or adventure to seek happiness or enlightenment, only to find that what they seek is illusory, dangerous, or both.

In this case Penny, a 22-year-old American, marries an older Englishman who she meets while working in a hotel bar in Seattle. She moves to Birmingham, which I failed to notice is placed in the North of England by the author. Perhaps I deliberately left that in to underline how much of a fish out of water Penny is in the UK? Gosh, wasn't I brilliant... Ahem. The point is that a young, somewhat vulnerable woman finds himself increasingly isolated and despairing as she tries to make sense of a new life in a far from warm and friendly country.

The story's title comes from an Anglo-Saxon poem close to the author's heart. The conceit involves an excursion into a wood (a familiar way to both lose and find yourself in poetry), where Penny discovers an ancient item of jewellery. Her plight in a bleak, unfriendly modern city parallels that of a woman from England's younger days and, by extension, all women adrift in a world not made with them in mind. Misfits feature heavily in weird fiction, but Lynda Rucker's are some of the best, because they are the most immediately and painfully human.

Another story reviewed tomorrow!

Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Poll Quite Literally Catches Fire! (No, not really)

It is interesting when people say that, though, isn't it? 'The lads are literally gutted by this result, Brian.' Imagine the novelty if that were true. Even I'd watch Match of the Day.

None of which is pertinent to the poll over on the right-hand sidebar, there. At time of typing it has seven (7) votes for best story in issue 32, which isn't a lot. I note that most of 'em are for Jeremy Schliewe's excellent story 'A Little Lost Thing', which you'll be amused to learn wasn't supposed to be called that at all. I had a brain freeze and mistitled it. What a twit. But it didn't do the story any harm.

Anyway, if you haven't read ST#32 now's the time to get stuck in, because #33 will be along very soon! And if you have read the last issue but haven't voted yet, well, express your opinion. It's as good as anyone else's, and authors love feedback. Tell 'em you love 'em. Writing can be a lonely business.

'The Queen in the Yellow Wallpaper'

The next story in Lynda E. Rucker's new collection is, for me, a re-read. I first read it last year while staying in a very old building in Rye, once the home town of Henry James and E.F. Benson. Like the previous tale's M.R. James vibe, this one offers an intelligent re-take on classic weird fiction involving women.

A woman moves to a remote house to live with her partner and his sister, an eccentric playwright who is prone to crises. The house is called Carcosa, and the first-person narrator's bedroom wallpaper is indeed yellow. This is an unholy hybrid of elements in The King in Yellow and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's classic feminist tale. Sara, the writer, is creating a play that has the same dangerous, fascinating power as the play in Chambers' stories. The difference is that the narrator is not entirely horrified by the entity that Sara's work apparently conjures up.

This finely-turned tale rewards re-reading, and holds together well. The author handles the quasi-Decadent language superbly in prose that evokes not only Gilman and Chambers, but also Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carole Oats.

'And something wakes in the darkness and wakes in the air and wakes in my bones and we wait for our goddess, our ruler of Carcosa, our charnel queen.'

'Who Is This Who Is Coming?'

This previously unpublished work is a tribute to the classic ghost story, and in particular the BBC adaptations of M.R. James tales in the Seventies.

Fern, a lonely America, visits East Anglia to see the locations used in 'A Warning to the Curious' and 'Whistle and I'll Come to You'. But Fern's enjoyment is spoiled by an overbearing Englishman, Mr Ames, who insists on escorting her everywhere. Here is the familiar problem of the fellow enthusiast who is also a crushing bore. Fern does evade Ames' attentions, but another local is not so easily repelled...

This story recalls the traditional ghost story in structure and characterisation - Fern goes to another country to look at locations from TV shows made before she was born (possibly) because she is a misfit. His colleagues don't pay much attention and she feels her only friends are online, a modern twist on the Jamesian idea of the solitary person being more open to strange phenomena. There is ambiguity, yes, but no doubt that horror in some form has claimed Fern in the end. She has drawn it to her because it is the only thing that is real to her.


Tuesday, 6 September 2016

'Where the Summer Dwells'

Another review of a story in Lynda E. Rucker's latest collection, available from The Swan River Press. Perhaps this is a real-time review. Stranger things have happened.

'Where the Summer Dwells' occupies the fertile ground between the short stories of Shirley Jackson, Stephen King, and Ray Bradbury, sort of. It's not easy to classify, in part because it's so simple. Charlotte, who was born in the Southern US, goes back to her home town from Oregon with some new friends. She recalls her old friends, Vic and Cade, and how she lost touch with them, then briefly felt she had a chance of being reunited.

An overbearingly hot Georgia summer is wonderfully evoked, as are the subtle nuances of love, friendship, and nostalgia. It's a sad story, in which the supernatural element is elusive but nonetheless convincing. Who doesn't want to return to the perfect summer we knew when we were young? Who doesn't yearn for the timeless immediacy of youth and hope?

'So long, and all of them grown up and gone away.'

A very moving story.

Monday, 5 September 2016

'The House on Cobb Street'

Sorry for no review yesterday, I was out with friends getting drunk.

The third story from Lynda E. Rucker's new collection takes a new approach to the traditional haunted house story. This is quite an achievement, but it works. Reversing the usual approach, 'The House on Cobb Street' offers a plethora of 'factual' information on the haunting and its victim, but the more the various authorities provide the less clear it what really happened. And this uncertainty is, Rucker makes clear, part of the nature of the haunting itself.

'You succumbed to a kind of learned helplessness that convinced you the veil between the worlds had been pulled back and you could not escape; wherever you went, you would always be haunted.'
'You entered into an abusive relationship with a haunted house.'

That is the narrator, Vivian's, explanation for the obvious plot-hole in so many stories/movies. Why don't they just leave? Because they can't. Not because the house is physically preventing them (though that sometimes works) or because they've sunk so much money into a fixer-upper (though again, people are crazy that way) but because they are possessed by the haunting.

In this case Vivian can't leave the Cobb Street House despite the strongest evidence that its paranormal presence is malign. But then there's a twist, as rival investigators begin to question whether Vivian ever lived in the house at all.

Structurally this is a tricky one to pull off, but I think it works.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

'Widdershins'

The second story in Lynda E. Rucker's new collection, like the first, shows that there's plenty of life in several time-honoured horror tropes.

An American - a man with 'Something on his mind', as M.R. James put it - stays at a friends' cottage in rural Ireland. He's recovering from a mid-life crisis involving the loss of a good job and family disintegration. When a local warns him about a mysterious gate that lies somewhere near the cottage he is intrigued and gradually becomes obsessed with it. Is the gate real? What lies beyond it? Anecdotal evidence suggests nothing good will come of seeking the gate. But of course, he must. The story is presented as a series of journal entries.

Plots like this go back to the golden age of the British ghost story, in and around the 1900s. E.F. Benson, among many others, produced a number of notable examples of a gentleman 'roughing it' in the country and encountering paranormal phenomena. The difference is that here Rucker offers something that is both more intense and less definite than the ghost story plot all tied up with a bow. Instead of a plot-driven story 'Widdershins' focuses on a character who feels himself to be fated to encounter 'something a young Earth made wrong'. This nod to Blackwood and others gives 'Widdeshins' the feel of a classic weird tale yet it manages to be firmly of our time, complete with its reference to the way the 'Celtic Tiger died mid-leap'.

Another mini-review tomorrow!

Friday, 2 September 2016

Elf Update

In Iceland, elves still count for something. Not for Icelandic folk all this twaddle about superheroes or sparkly vampires. No, they stick to their native supernatural beings, and they show them respect. Because when they don't, the pixieshit hits the elvenfan.
Bowing to intense pressure from elves and the people who believe in them, the government of Iceland will unearth a purportedly magical “Elfin Lady Stone” buried by highway workers by mistake. The inadvertent burial of their sacred site seriously pissed off the mythical creatures, according to reports.

Angry Icelandic elves incensed by the offensive construction site error are blamed of causing a series of mishaps throughout the country. Their sacred stone was covered over as workers were clearing landslide debris,Morgunbladid daily reports today.
Elves. Don't mess with 'em.

'The Receiver of Tales'

The first story in You'll Know When You Get There (see previous post) concerns Aisha, a middle-aged woman with a secret. In her youth she fell in love with a young artist whose tragic suicide transferred something - a power, a curse, or both - to Aisha. Now she is seemingly immortal, but also tormented by the woes of others. People tell her the stories that 'poisoned their lives', and Aisha carves these tales onto the floor and walls of her apartment, and onto her flesh.

As a tale about tales, this one is a doozy. I particularly like the way a whole backstory for the 'vampire' is implied but never explicitly outlined. Instead Aisha receives a series of gnomic letters that eventually compel her to act. But does she do the right thing? The conclusion is fascinating and satisfying, with its emphasis on the need for human connection at almost any price, the author's humane conviction that acknowledging our humanity is worth the effort. This is also classic modern horror in its depiction of the paranormal as something that happens on the margins, to people we overlook or find ludicrous, contemptible, pitiable.

Another snippety little story review tomorrow, I hope!

Thursday, 1 September 2016

A New Book Has Arrived!

Lynda E. Rucker, whose work has appeared in several issues of ST, has a new book out from Dublin's Swan River Press. It is of course bound to be a spiffing read, as Lynda is the genuine article - a serious, literary author of 'quiet horror' whose work is disquieting, inspiring, and oddly reassuring. It's good to know that there are writers so gifted working in our genre.

The new collection, You'll Know When You Get There (excellent title, btw) contains two previously unpublished stories plus tales from magazines and anthologies, including 'The Wife's Lament' from ST #24.

I seem to be very busy with assorted things at the moment, but will take time to read a story a day and blog about them. I know, a radical plan, but somebody has to do it. In the meantime, wise readers should mosey on over to Swan River and order a copy, as they will soon be sold out.