Thursday, 22 June 2017

Iron, Cold Iron

GOLD is for the mistress - silver for the maid" -
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade! "
" Good! " said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
But Iron - Cold Iron - is master of them all."
Rudyard Kipling, there, proving yet again that he delivered more interesting facts per stanza than any other British poet, with the possible  except of Isidore McClunky, the Actuarial Bard of Berwick. What am I on about? Well, it's mostly down to the heat and lack of sleep, but I'm not just rambling insanely. Iron is traditionally the enemy of occult forces, far more versatile than a mere silver bullet or wooden stake. Iron sorts 'em all out - witches, fairies, the whole supernatural shebang. But why?

Well, here's an interesting essay on that very subject!
The use of lightning rods caused a furor of conflicting arguments from different factions of the Church. Some priests thought that they demonstrated the Church’s ability to control the elements in the name of God. Others argued that they demonstrated a lack of faith in the power of prayer as a form of protection. Some thought the Church was actually endorsing, and dabbling in, what may be a form of witchcraft! Some believed that their use attracted God’s wrath, causing churches to be struck by lightning much more regularly. Others thought lightning strikes occurred because they frustrated the Devil and his followers, making them lash out angrily, though ineffectually. It was claimed that lightning rods also caused earthquakes. However, it seems that bell ringers all said, ‘Thank God!'
And if you want to give it a go, my latest book - due out soon - contains a part of that Kipling quote, for occult reasons!

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Interesting Long Reads

Over at The New Yorker we find an intriguing, very detailed item on 'The Occult Roots of Modernism'. It does that thing I like, informing me about a significant figure I'd never heard of. In this case it is a mad French bloke of the Decadent era. Yeah, what are the odds?
Péladan was born in Lyon, in 1858, into a family steeped in esoteric tendencies. His father, Louis-Adrien, was a conservative Catholic writer who tried to start a Cult of the Wound of the Left Shoulder of Our Saviour Jesus Christ. Péladan’s older brother, Adrien, was the author of a medical text proposing that the brain subsists on unused sperm that takes the form of vital fluid.
I'll just leave that there. The other article is equally thoughtful and looks at an interesting kinship between two of my favourite authors. Check out 'The Corner of Lovecraft and Ballard'. It's very detailed but rewarding, not least in its analysis of corners. Yes, those square things in rooms. I was surprised by the amount of attention they've got down the decades.
For H.P. Lovecraft the corner is a gateway to the screaming abyss of the outer cosmos; for J.G. Ballard it is a gateway to our own psyche. In Lovecraft’s universe, science was making man irrelevant, shunting us into a corner. Ballard takes the corner and turns it inside out, again making us the very center.



Monday, 19 June 2017

First Paragraphs - Stories from ST #35

You know when you do a bit of browsing in the bookshop, flip through a few pages to see what a book is about? Well, you just picked up the next issue and are about to peruse the first paras of each story. In what may become a hallowed tradition if I don't forget, here is a taster of what''s in store next month. Where the first paragraph is actually just a line I've added another para to give it a bit of context. Fasten your literary seat-belts, we're in for a wild ride.

When Bernard wasn’t concentrating, his wife Marianne bought a cottage on the Welsh Marches. Three months later, he was by himself in the half-timbered sitting-room, a stained copy of Country Life and Château-bottled Bordeaux on the side table next to his armchair. The fire flickered and died down; earlier the central heating had failed. No sounds—apart from the scraping of minute creatures in the beams. The spiders came out at midnight.

'Absolute Possession' by Charles Wilkinson

“Poetry, pornography and prophecy,” said Charles Lickerish.
“What about pottery?” said Upshaw.
“Pottery?” we both echoed, incredulously.
“Yes,” he said, “you know, crack-pottery. Always plenty of that about.”
We threw things at him. Then we acknowledged the justice of his observation. But we thought this would be largely covered by prophecy. In the end, to stop any further pleading from him, we admitted the possibility of it as a sort of honorary category, if he could bring us some examples that didn’t fit the other three.

'The Scarlet Door' by Mark Valentine

What most people thought of as Frank’s right leg did not belong to him, but to the mouse that lived inside it. From Frank’s boyhood, the mouse had peered at him through the big toenail of that alien right foot. Frank, by contrast, could see the mouse only in his dreams. Dreams of swimming underwater in the pool his father had had installed in the yard, of crawling underneath his mother’s dining room table—it didn’t matter where.

'A Russian Nesting Demon' by Andrew Alford

It was on Lant’s last encounter with Haggerston at the pleasaunce at Greenwich (a former graveyard) that the black speck, the blemish, had first entered his vision.
On descending the hill Lant had thought he spied movement in the uncut grass, a thin and slipping bit of darkness it might have been. Not the sort of thing that one would normally take note of. However, when meeting with a self-confessed necromancer like Haggerston you could never be certain of what might be about.
'The Subliminals' Pt 1. by Michael Chislett

Stephen Lake watched the demolition of one library from the roof garden of another. That felt like poor taste; also a duty. Central Library was bisected now, machine-pincers plucking at concrete, exposing wires and cavities. You could see through to the Town Hall, the stilled fountain in Chamberlain Square. As if to compensate, water-jets arced to lay the dust. Stephen closed his eyes and reshaped the ruins: a Brutalist ziggurat turned upside down. He closed the gap, spun his projection round to add the curving lobby. He sketched in the mural on the east side—birds’ heads carrying cherries, a ribbon with EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE written in Spanish. If he stood there long enough he could add the interior, reverse the demolition…

'To Utter Dust' by Mat Joiner

Anything is possible at twilight. At least, that’s how it seems to me. The events of daylight have taken place, throwing their shadows in front of them. And night is still to come. Twilight is the uncertain borderland, the time when yearnings and desires can ebb with the afterglow or flower once more.

'The House at Twilight' by John Howard

Gold. That’s what’s in it for me.” The speaker himself had a gilded appearance: fair hair bleached almost white by the sun, tanned skin with a faint metallic sheen of perspiration. His green eyes were flecked with motes of gold, giving them an opalescent appearance, at once beautiful and cold.
Dekker knew him as Mertens, but that was probably not his original name.

'Gold' by Helen Grant


Cover illustration by Sam Dawson

Friday, 16 June 2017

'Little Black Eyes and Tiny Hands'



Coincidence is a funny old dame. I recently included Aleister Crowley in a story, and guess what? He's in this one, the last I'll be reviewing from Rebecca Lloyd's fine collection Seven Strange StoriesThe title, you may have guessed, is a somewhat unflattering description of the Great Beast himself. Here he is!

Image result for aleister crowley

I think she has a point. Anyway, the novella is set in Sicily and concerns Ernesto, a young man with ambitions to be an architect. Ernesto's granddad tells him a fragmentary story of a group of foreigners, led by Crowley (who is never named in the story), who set up house in their village just after the Great War. Crowley is here portrayed as thoroughly unpleasant, his largely female following a hapless bunch of victims.

The description of the hostile interaction of the close-knit villagers and Crowley's Thelema cult are entertaining, and utterly convincing. Lloyd has a true novelist's knack of giving depth and colour to her characters and settings. Decades later,when Ernesto is a lad in the Seventies, the 'Ghost House' where the outsiders lived is derelict, a place where school bullies force victims to go. Ernesto ends up inside and confronts what may be the ghost of the 'wickedest man in the world'.

The sup[supernatural elements in this story are woven expertly into the fabric of Ernesto's tale, as he lives a life blighted by a few minutes of terror. Eventually he has to return to Sicily for his grandfather's funeral and forces himself to confront, for the last time, the evil spirit in the haunted house. There is hope, it seems, even for those of us who feel cursed and cast adrift.

Thus ends my running review of this latest collection from Tartarus. As always the book is a lovely thing in itself. The cover illustrator is not listed, so far as I can see.. Could this vignette be the work of the author, too?

Monday, 12 June 2017

'The Monster Orgorp'

England - a country riddled with corruption, superstition, and sexual depravity. A land divided between a tiny minority of the super-rich and the vast majority of the middling-to-poor. A place where snobbery, hypocrisy, and bigotry hold sway.

Oh, I'm referring to Georgian England. Just in case you were wondering,

In this novella from Seven Strange Stories Rebecca Lloyd sets herself the difficult task of recreating an 18th century Gothic story with a modern sensibility. She avoids the obvious pitfalls of having overly-modern language and characters, but also steers clear of using too many period expressions (aka 'tushery'). As a result 'The Monster Orgorp' is almost an object lesson in how to do period fiction without making a twit, or a bore, of yourself.

The story begins with a simple country girl, Caroline Wilson, who goes into domestic service at the very dysfunctional (and of course manorial) home of Lord Mallet. Lady Mallet is estranged from the bloated debauchee she married. While he gambles, drinks, and whores far into the night, her ladyship seems to be preoccupied with more arcane matters in her wing of the house. Rumour has it among the servants that the lady is a witch. The arrival of a mysterious shrouded figure that stinks as it glides through the house sends speculation soaring - surely the Thing (as Caroline calls it) must be a familiar?

Caroline wins the favour of Lady Mallet (and, by default, the envy of the other female servants) and slowly becomes privy to more information about the Thing. There is a real Horace Walpole feel about the passages during which the foul-smelling, stunted being wafts around the great house. Then comes a plot twist that no contemporary author would have dared handle so explicitly. This leads to a revelation that shows where the truly monstrous lies.

This novella is another satisfying read, but I was slightly baffled by the title, as there seems no real reason for Caroline to dub the thing Orgorp. I tried to figure out if there was a hidden meaning, but got nothing - or is 'Progro' a pop at Rick Wakeman? Perhaps I'm just too dim, or it could be an in-joke. It was also slightly baffled by a rather long passage* on anal sex, which seemed to labour the point. I mean, we know what it is and what it can symbolise.

Nearly completed my running review! Stay tuned for the last bit.

*yes I did write 'passage' without thinking, but I'm leaving it in so there.

Bosch Parade - in tune with mad times




h/t Steve Duffy

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

'Where's the Harm?'



Oh the irony - I'm writing this the day before the UK general election. Where indeed is the harm? Well, in Rebecca Lloyd's 'strange story' the harm is to venture off the path through the woods. This fairytale stuff, of course, and this novella does partake of folklore in some its imagery and ideas.

For instance, we begin with two rival brothers, both of whom are in need of cash.They agree to do up their parents' old house and sell it, but one becomes preoccupied with the forest and its link to a childhood mystery. Why did their beautiful mother cut off all her hair one day? An old codger living nearby has a good idea, but won't tell. All he does is warn them to stay on the path and not go in search of a second house that is said to be hidden in the trees.

Needless to say one brother strays, urging the other to follow him with the words of the title. They find the mysterious house and its residents, or at least two them. Beautiful and strange women with immensely long hair appear in the clearing and prove enchanting to Eddie, the wayward brother. This leads to a trysting and a union that are as bizarre as they seem inevitable. Ross the sensible brother, is the appalled spectator.

This is an interesting novella, well-paced and genuinely odd. It seems to be set on the margins of our reality. For instance, the place where the brothers live is called Holesville Nine, a place that I doubt we can find on any Ordnance Survey map. It sounds as if it should lie somewhere between the worlds of William S. Burroughs and Arnold Palmer.

By the same token the mysterious forest women (I can't call them 'hairy women' even though it's accurate) have Star Wars-y names like Carboh and Domescia. I'm not sure if these quirky details enhance the story or make it less effective. After all the brothers are called Ross and Eddie, not Zarp and Gingloid. But perhaps the pulp sf element is not surprising, as the story's climactic image is derived from a well-known work by Catherine L. Moore.

Those quibbles aside, this is another fine piece of writing. Again we are in the countryside, and again we are quietly informed that it is not a safe place. Too much is hidden by the foliage, anything might lurk among the trees.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

'Jack Werrett,the Flood Man'

This story is an interesting example of what used to be called magical realism, and possibly still is. It might also be a case of the 'new weird' but I'm not sure what that is. The point is that Rebecca Lloyd again provides a good rural character study with a paranormal twist.

An academic rents a house from two eccentric sisters, who then insist that they move in with her. This far from ideal arrangement seems to cause bizarre aquatic activity. Water forms odd, humped puddles on stairs. Taps drip but leave no evidence of wetness. The sisters believe it's all down to the titular Jack Werrett, who in life had extraordinary powers over water. In death a dispute over the ownership of the family home has apparently led him to get a bit shirty, not to mention drippy.

This nicely-crafted story reminded me slightly of the fine and neglected A. E. Coppard. It is a little less quirky that Coppard's tales of the countryside, but has the same feel. Rural England is not merely odder than we townies imagine, but odder than we can imagine. Rebecca Lloyd has written a novel with the same title as this story, so I assume the latter is a pendant to the former, or perhaps was the grit in its oyster.

So far I've enjoyed four of the seven tales in Seven Strange Stories. Now for the novellas - might take me a bit longer to post reviews of those, but stay tuned.


Monday, 29 May 2017

'Christy'

A surprise, here, in Rebecca Lloyd's Seven Strange Stories. The previous two tales I've read and reviewed are very British in character, but now we're in rural America. I suspect the Midwest USA is intended, rather than the South. But wherever it is, somebody is playing 'Duelling Banjos' in the vicinity.

The story is told by Yola, a much-abused wife and mother, as an extended flashback to the Seventiees and the disappearance of her beloved son Earl. Earl was lamed by rickets, a condition that also afflicted Yola's only daughter. The poor girl was disposed of by her ghastly father, Daddy Hines. As a concession to his wife he does not murder his lame son. It's that kind of set up.

Earl vanished a few weeks after he starts taking about Christy. An imaginary friend? A ghost? Some combination of the two? Who- or whatever Christy is, when he touches Earl the boy is scarred by icy fingertips. Or is the whole thing a figment of Yola's imagination? Her friend Dulcie thinks so, but then Dulcie's yen for Daddy Hines makes her judgement more than a little suspect.

This is a remarkable example of a British writer attempting to riff on American Gothic conventions and almost pulling it off. I say almost because of two drawbacks. One is the presence of too many Britishisms, such as 'arse' for 'ass' - that makes no sense. And Yola's language is arguably too conventional, too devoid of specific regional words and phrases to be wholly convincing. She sounds a little too 'straight' and British at times.

That said, when 'Christy' shines - as in the descriptions of Yola's bleak existence - it shines with a clear, cold light. I was reminded of Robert Frost's poem 'A Servant to Servants', another portrayal of the rural wife's grim existence, albeit in a very different context. And in the end Yola wins most of her battles, as strong women tend to do. Daddy Hines, by contrast, suffers the fate of all hard men.

'The tattoos all over his arms and legs... have got him looking more like a grey rag than a living man now; since he's shrunk and gone flabby like the violent men all do down this way.'

So, another winner. Stay tuned for more of this running review.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

'Again'

Dipping a second time in Seven Strange Stories by Rebecca Lloyd I find myself thinking of L.P. Hartley. (Try it yourself, it's free.) 

'Again' is a tale that recalls Hartley's very British  approach to what the French call contes cruels.  If you know your Hartley, think of 'The Travelling Grave', 'The Killing Bottle', or 'The Cotillion'. 

In each of those stories we have a typical English country house setting, with guests that would not be out of place in an Evelyn Waugh novel, or perhaps Wodehouse. But what transpires is strange and disturbing, both unexpected and yet with the hideous inevitability of nightmare.

'Again' has a first person narrator, Richard, who is desperate to avoid his wife's friend Diane from making a scene. The story begins when they meet on the stairs after Richard leaves his guests to replenish the ice bucket. Diane is confused, unsure why she is in Richard's house. Gradually, as he harangues her and she expresses genuine bafflement, the grim truth is revealed.

As well as Hartley there is a touch of Poe about this one. I'll say no more than that, because it is a tale with a twist. While recognisably from the same authorial world as 'The Pantum Burden', 'Again' offers a different take on death and our responses to it. I think I'm getting to know the author a bit better, and we seem to be getting on all right.

Pop back in a while, the running review has just begun.

'The Pantun Burden'

The first tale I read in Rebecca Lloyd's Seven Strange Stories is on the margins of English folk horror. All the ingredients are there, but the story is far from formulaic or predictable. It is not so much horror, I feel, as a tale of belief and delusion. Who is deluded is not entirely certain.

An educated person - in this case a scientist conducting a firefly survey - encounters superstition and general weirdness in a small village. The cast of characters includes some odd types, such as The Chicken Man. The description of the latter's bungalow, with the inside of its windows caked with the crap of his most favoured poultry, is one that sticks with me. Good job it's not a scratch 'n' sniff book.

The Pantuns of the title are a mother and son, village outcasts thanks to a curse that they believe leads to supernatural manifestations. The way in which the narrator tries to deal with what she feels sure is an abusive relationship is realistic and not too harrowing. Lloyd's touch is just light enough to ensure suspension of disbelief, her prose elegant and graceful.

In the end 'The Pantun Burden' is a clever tale about the way all our minds play tricks on us, because we are human. Being deluded, especially by love, is part of our condition. Ghosts may be inevitable in such circumstances. Fortunately not all of us can see them.

So, a good start. Another story will be pondered a bit in due course.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Seven Strange Stories



Hark! 'Tis the cheery rapping of the friendly neighbourhood postman, delivering another review copy from Tartarus Press. Seven Strange Stories by Rebecca Lloyd looks interesting and is a beautifully made book, as you'd expect. I will be doing one of my now almost-popular 'running reviews' of these seven stories in about seven days. Fingers crossed. Lloyd is a new writer to me, so I'm coming at these tales with no preconceptions.

I should remark that these are not all short stories. Two of them are really novellas,as you can see from the TOC. What's more, one is set in the eighteenth century, which is part of an interesting trend. Once period weird fiction tended to focus on the Victorian-Edwardian era, but it's been creeping back to its Gothic roots, I suspect. Anyway, more of all that theorising anon. So thanks to Tartarus, reviewing hat on, and much reading to do!



Friday, 19 May 2017

Eloise, by Ibrahim R. Ineke



Image result for Ineke eloise

You've read my review of Ibrahim Ineke's graphic adaptation  of Machen's 'The White People', haven't you? It's just down the page a bit, if not. Eloise, or, the Realities, to give it its full title, is a longer and purely original work. Original, that is, in terms of character and story. Its central idea and treatment is very reminiscent of British folk horror TV of the Seventies.

This is no accident. In the blurb we read that Eloise is partly 'inspired by classic TV series such as Children of the Stones and The Owl Service'. I would add Penda's Fen to that list, with perhaps a dash of Nigel Kneale. From the start it's clear that Ineke's setting is that of the pre-internet era when social networks for kids consisted of old-style friendships. It was not an idyllic world, though we may remember it as such.

The story begins with Eloise's parents - who are never really more than ciphers - packing for a move. "Where's El?" asks the father. El is out in wilds, talking to what might be an imaginary friend. She asks if he/she/it can come along with her. The friend replies: "I can't. I was born here." And that sums up the story, in essence. Some can move, and change, and grow in certain ways. Some cannot.

Related image

When the family arrive in their new town Eloise sets out to explore on her bike.  She encounters a strange boy who's into reading. When she introduces herself he does not tell her his name because names 'are just instruments of control devised by adults'. Did I mention the Seventies, earlier?

The boy shows Eloise around town and they end up at a mysterious tower in the woods. Nearby lurks The Green Man, said to be some mad old tramp. But when Eloise encounters him he proves to be more erudite and friendly, and called Abe. It is the nameless boy who proves to be the stranger of the two new 'friends', and soon Eloise is crossing boundaries as she uncovers more facts - or fantasies - about her new home.

Image result for Ibrahim Ineke Eloise
Eventually Eloise is transformed in a powerful metaphor for the transition and disturbance of adolescence. It's also a cracking visual sequence of the sort old-time TV directors could only dream of. Throughout the book Ineke's stark, slightly off-kilter artwork challenges the reader to see things differently. I wish I knew more about art, but if I had to describe the style it would be 'post-pulp stark'. It is reminiscent of old-time telly in this respect, with images that are just clear enough to be intensely evocative.

So, another winner from Ineke. The world of Eloise is one I will certainly return to, in my waking and sleeping hours. But then, in a way, I was born there.

You can see a preview slideshow of Eloise here. You can buy it here.

The Sign of Ouroboros

The Sign of Ouroboros by [Longhorn, David]Exciting title, eh? Full of mystical significance, and snakey goodness.

Anyway, it's my latest book from Scare Street. It involves a mysterious cult, mass hypnosis, and sleazy but unwary men being eaten alive. So that's all the ingredients you'd expect to find in a good old-fashioned yarn.

You can find out a bit more here. It's available as an ebook and in good old fashioned processed tree. Oh, and it's the first in a three book series that just gets more bonkers and intriguing as events unfold. And I should know, I'm still writing the last one.

A list of other books by yours truly can be found here.


Monday, 15 May 2017

'The White People'

Image result for ibrahim the white people


I am the lucky recipient of not one but two review copies of weird graphic tales by Ibrahim R. Ineke. I'll be reviewing the longer book, Eloise, in a few days. But first a re-imagining of Arthur Machen's 1904 classic 'The White People'. If you haven't read it, go and do so now. 

Done that? Okay, as you probably know 'The White People' is held by many to be one of the best pieces of weird fiction in English. It's a short, superficially simple story. In a framing narrative two erudite gentlemen discuss the nature of evil. One argues that true evil is a pure as true goodness, and thus has an innocent quality. To support his case he produces a journal written by an unknown child which details her induction and training in a nameless cult.  The contrast between the simple, childish language and what is being done to her is deeply disturbing.

The story is not an obvious candidate for any of the visual arts.It depends on the reader trying to imagine what the child means by 'Aklo letters', 'Dhols' and 'Voolas'. Ineke has avoided the trap of trying to draw the unimaginable by updating and 're-imagining' the story. Now there are two children playing in the woods. They are engaged in a kind of fantasy game, and Lovecraft is invoked. Then  one of them accidentally stumbles into a 'real' world of strange, paranormal forces and beings.

ineke3.jpg


Friday, 12 May 2017

Audio Stuff

If you go here you will find some of my older readings, including stories from ST. Below is a small sample. This is a test of my incompetence with html. The story should be 'Ancient Lights' by Algernon Blackwood.




Friday, 5 May 2017

Richard Dalby 1949-2017

Richard Dalby, who died recently, was one of the most prolific and knowledgeable editors of supernatural fiction. His expertise extended beyond ghost stories, embracing children's fiction, detective literature, and book illustration. He was responsible for so many first-rate anthologies that his influence on writers and fans of these genres must have been immense. It is never easy to quantify in the influence of an editor. But I suspect that most of the people reading these words know his books. He shaped many minds and we are poorer for his departure.

On my own bookshelf I have a copy of the Ghosts and Scholars anthology, which Richard co-edited with that other great expert on ghostly fiction, Ro Pardoe. He edited two volumes of The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, and Dracula's Brood: Neglected Vampire Classics. All are worth seeking out. I regret not getting to know Richard in person, but on the occasions I corresponded with him (he never took to email) I found him charming, informative, and helpful. Here is a brief obituary.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Trilogy of Terror (1973)

I love anthology horror movies, and I revere the great Richard Matheson. So surely a TV movie featuring not one but three Richard Matheson stories would be pretty damn good, huh?

Nope.

First aired as an ABC Movie of the week in March, 1973, Trilogy of Terror is an object lesson in the strengths and weaknesses of its format. It was intended partly as a showcase for Karen Black, who stars in each segment as a different character. If you don't know who Karen Black is, this is who she is. She's the one in the foreground. Twice. The guy in the background is, well - more later.

Trilogy of Terror Poster.jpg


Monday, 1 May 2017

Twixt (2011)

"So, how does it feel to be the bargain-basement Stephen King?"

I think I can safely say this is now what a horror writer wants to hear on a book signing tour. But it is what horror writer Hall Baltimore hears from Bobby LaGrange, sheriff in a small town with a very odd history.

It's a funny old place, Swann Valley, what with its belfry clock that has seven dials, each showing a different time. Then there's the old hotel where Edgar Allan Poe once stayed. Oh, and the colony of Goths on the other side of lake who the sheriff blames for a spate of murders. Murders in which the victim is staked through the heart. Naturally.

Bobby (a bonkers Bruce Dern) explains to Hall (a chubby, pony-tailed Val Kilmer) that he thinks the 'vampire equivalent of the electric chair' was used to kill the girl in the morgue. For good measure the sheriff has constructed a small working model of the staking machine. Hall, who's having the usual writers' problems with his wife and his agent, is persuaded to view the corpse, then encounters what seems to be the ghost of the murdered girl.

Bobby proposes to Hall that they collaborate on a book about the 'Vampire Killings' in the valley. Hall, desperately seeking inspiration, is tempted. But things start to go very wrong when he looks deeper into the town's history, gets drunk, necks a lot of pills, and encounters the ghost of Poe. And if that sounds loopy, believe me I have hardly scratched the surface of Twixt. It throws so  many cliches at the wall that some are bound to stick, and I can imagine a lot of people being annoyed and/or bored with it. And yet...

A friend recorded Twixt off the Horror Channel and suggested I watch it. Because just dove in with no preconceptions I think I enjoyed it more. For instance, I assumed that the rather decent production values were a lucky break for some clever young writer-director - a producer's vote of confidence. Imagine my surprise to see in the end credits that the film is written, directed, and produced by Francis Ford Coppola.

Twixt is one of those overlooked films, and you can see why. It is variously described as a comedy and an experimental horror thriller, which gives you some idea of how problematic it is. Conventional horror fans don't get much gore, comedy fans don't get many laughs. I enjoyed it, Not many other people did, thought. It film bombed at the box office, as they say.


Monday, 24 April 2017

Poe Power

Image result for poe

The Sunday Times (evil Murdoch paywall, but you can sign up for a couple of free items a week if you like) has an interesting article by Stephen Amidon about the American short story. Amidon argues, quite reasonably, that American authors are often masters (or mistresses?) of short-form fiction. Most British novelists are not. Ireland is another story, but let's stay focused here.

According to Amidon
While the modern short story was probably born in Germany in the early 19th century, with works by writers such as ETA Hoffmann and Heinrich von Kleist, the genre came into its own in the US over the next few decades. The honour of the first great American short story must go to Washington Irving, whose canonical The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was published in 1820. 
It was in May 1842, however, that US pre-eminence was firmly established when Graham’s Magazine of Philadelphia published two pieces by the 33-year-old Edgar Allan Poe. The first was one of his “tales of ratiocination”, The Masque of the Red Death, whose intense narrative concentration and focus on the feverish workings of his protagonist’s inner psychology prefigured much of what was to come.
Quite true. Poe put his tanks (or dragoons, or whatever) on the castle lawns of all those authors of three-decker Gothic novels by showing all their favourite tropes worked better in condensed form. After Poe no US writer needed to feel guilty about writing something shorter than 20,000 words. And, as Amidon astutely points out, the US economy's clout meant that there were always publishers for short fiction willing to pay decent rates.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

'The Keeper' by Alan Garner

This is a half-hour story from the early Eighties TV series Dramarama, produced by Thames for older children. You can find the whole series (in glorious VHS quality) on YouTube, but Garner is the star writer.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Graphic Ghosts

The writer John Reppion, who I had the pleasure to meet all too briefly in Liverpool, and his partner Leah Moore are working on graphic novel versions of M.R. James ghost stories. They're doing a spiffing job IMHO. Check out this link.








Wednesday, 12 April 2017

'Between Me and the Sun'


The third and final novella in From Ancient Ravens is by John Howard. If Ron Weighell's style is Decadent absinthe and Mark Valentine's is nostalgic old English ale, Howard's is a drink of cool water, or perhaps refreshing lemonade.
This is, at first, a relatively simple tale of three boys growing up in rural England. It's told from the viewpoint of David, whose relationship to his long-time friend Clive becomes complex in early adolescence due to the arrival of Iain. Iain is a dreamer, into astronomy, a lover of landscape. Tensions between the three build up at they approach their O-levels - this is late Seventies England, judging by such internal evidence. Eventually bickering and bullying leads to a strange tragedy in a complex of chalk caves.


From Ancient Ravens cover

This story reminded me slightly of 'Death By Landscape' a Margaret Atwood story that also concerns a baffling disappearance. Like Atwood, Howard is keen to explore the far-reaching consequences of seemingly trivial actions, especially when the actors are immature. The weird element of the story is interwoven with exultant passages on the wonders of the universe, which - as an astronomy buff - I found compelling. Another theme, that of a troubled sexual awakening, is subtly counterpointed by images of darkness, things hidden, and subterranean perils.

Overall, From Ancient Ravens is a very diverse and satisfying selection of works by three very different authors. What the three have in common is their knowledge of and reverence for the complex tapestry we call weird fiction. I'm sorry that we will here no more from these Three (New) Impostors, but I think they have bid their admirers a very heartfelt adieu.

'The Asmodeus Fellowship'


From Ancient Ravens cover

I like stories within stories. Ron Weighell's contribution to From Ancient Ravens is a tale-infested tale of a storytelling club in old Budapest. The era is one of Decadence, the characters are larger than life, and the tales they tell are correpondingly extravagant.

First up is 'The Recondite Lives of Giorgio Vasari', a story of Venice. A browser at an antiquarian bookshop becomes acquainted with two mysterious bibliophiles. They offer him the chance to examine one of their unique collection of obscure volumes, but there is catch. He can only read for as long as a lamp burns. The narrator chooses a mysterious volume that seems to be the original, unexpurgated text of Vasari's famous Lives of the Painters. It is replete with odd and disturbing anecdotes of Renaissance Italy many obviously fantastical. Or are they? He comes to suspect that 'The world is full of gods.'

The second tale told is 'The Capriccio', a vignette concerning a sub-genre of sculpture that is new to me. An artist demonstrates her skill by carving an elaborate group of figures out of a single block of stone. This capriccio turns out radiate more than artistic beauty when it is displayed in a particular fashion. The images haunt the storyteller until he realises their hidden significance.

Another vignette, 'The Town Without a Tailor', arguably channels Clark Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsany. It is replete with magical powers and monstrous beings, and has the kind of horrific twist that Lovecraft would no doubt have enjoyed.

The fourth and final story is 'The Vanished Library', a Borgesian account of a journalist in Prague who seeks out the bizarre even when ordered to write a simple account of a civil engineering project. This tendency loses him his job, but gains him an invitation to join a select group of bibliophiles. What is the significance of cards found in obscure books bearing the image of a phoenix and the initials ILP? Is it merely an elaborate hoax?

As with all of Ron Weighell's recent work this novella is a feast of arcane knowledge and playful speculation. He delights in puzzles, tricks, and revelations that show the world to be stranger than we already suspected. The style is perhaps too rich for some palates, but there's no denying the craftsmanship that went into this box of dark delights.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Glorious Vote Victory!

Supernatural Tales 34First time author Giselle Leeb has won the popular vote for issue 34! Well done to her, and a princely sum of twenty-five quid will be heading her way shortly. If not sooner!

If you'd like to read Giselle's story, or indeed any of the excellent tales in the latest issue, why not buy a copy? You know it makes sense. Purchasing any issue of ST is remarkably easy. Just go here and then click on your method of choice.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

From Ancient Ravens - 'The Fifth Moon'

Paul Lowe's expressive depiction of the authors' muses at work

The latest volume from Sarob Press is the last in a series - the 'New Impostors', Mark Valentine, Ron Weighell, and John Howard. In the past these three literary scamps have paid tribute to Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. To sign off they have produced a third volume of wholly original novellas. From Ancient Ravens takes its title from Shakespeare. Look it up!

First up is Mark Valentine, with 'The Fifth Moon'. This is the tale of a writer who sets out to produce a popular book about one of the great moments in English history, the loss of King John's treasure in the Wash. (For overseas readers, the Wash is a tidal bay and not a laundry service.) Accompanied by a photographer the first-person narrator sets off for East Anglia to search for local legends about the incident. Inevitably, he finds far more than he bargained for.

This story is set in a period that might be vaguely termed 'between the wars' or 'after the war'. It has the Jamesian slight haze of distance, complete with steam trains and native-born fruit pickers. As always Valentine brings plenty of erudition to the table, offering several takes on the treasure legend. A gallery of well-drawn characters appear, each with a theory of his/her own. Eventually there is a revelation, but it is not the discovery one might expect.

In plot terms, this is a simple tale, but it is rich and complex on an emotional level. The descriptions of rural England are so evocative that they cry out for a film maker to bring them to the screen, or a  gifted artist to paint them. But at the heart of the story is ambiguity. Like King John's reputation, the his treasure will never cease to be a matter of doubt and disputation.

We're off to a great start. I will post the second part of this running review in a day or so.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Shadows

I've probably mentioned this at least once before, but it's a useful pendant to the entry on Folk Horror TV from earlier this month.

Image result for shadows tv series 1975

The Thames TV series Shadows ran from 1975-8 over three seasons. Each season had a different title sequence. You can see them here. There's a distinct whiff of folk horror about them, I feel. The stories vary in quality and of course it was low budget stuff. But the writing was often first rate. Among the authors contributing to the series were Joan Aiken, Fay Weldon, Penelope Lively, and Brian Patten. There's also an adaptation of 'The Other Window' by J.B. Priestley.

As this was a children's series the horror was fairly mild. But Shadows stands up well as an anthology series.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Liverpool

I was in Liverpool at the weekend, without a permit of course. No, I snuck into that fine city to take part in a gathering of A Ghostly Company, the literary society devote to ghost stories.

It was a lovely couple of days, not least because of the various luminaries who contributed. On Friday evening Jim Bryant talked about his research into the correspondence of M.R. James, whose handwriting is even worse than mine. Then Ro Pardoe of Ghosts & Scholars informally discussed her involvement with Jamesian fiction and the so-called 'James Gang', among other things.

On Saturday afternoon we had an excellent talk about Liverpudlian folklore from author John Reppion, followed by a reading of a story by Peter Bell - and a fine story it was, with an unusual theme and setting. There was also a book auction to raise money for the society - an event that always leaves me conflicted as I really mean to go away with fewer books than I bring. I failed, again.

Then in the evening Ramsey Campbell, our guest of honour, came along to read a new story, 'The Bill'. Classic Campbell, I thought, not least in its clever use of a commonplace event in most people's lives. No spoilers.




What is this? It's the tomb of a chap called William MacKenzie, that's what. As  you can see it's a pyramid, and rumour has it that MacKenzie was interred sitting up at a card table. This recalls Dr Rant in 'The Tractate Middoth'. John Reppion, in his talk, pointed out that this is wildly improbable, to say the least. But dead people sitting up in tombs is a recurring theme thanks to such Victorian monuments. I can think of at least two other fictional examples. One is Gilray's Ghost by John Gordon, the other is Hell House (book and film) by Richard Matheson.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

'In Eternity - Two Lines Intersect'

The last story in Written in Darkness is both an ending and a liberation. After taking us through the festering labyrinths of modern corporate culture, Mark Samuels reaches something approaching the Great Good Place. Again, there are overtones of Machen, and of the lesser-known Christian mystic author Charles Williams.

The story begins with the first-person narrator being released from some unspecified place. Doctors have advised him to gradually re-integrate himself into society. He is given pills, sessions with a psychotherapist are arranged. Eventually the nameless man finds a flat he can afford in a run-down area of London. He finds much of the previous occupants' property and comes to feel closer to the vanished scholar, Ambrose Crashaw, than he does to the living. He abandons his modern clothes for an old-fashioned suit, as well as becoming absorbed by Crashaw's collection of rare books. Crashaw's old  radio seems to receive signals from all the outworn cultures of Europe, in many languages. A neo-Gothic church nearby starts to intrigue him, especially when an unearthly light shines from one of its high windows.

This story recaptures some of the awe-inspiring quality in supernatural fiction published around a hundred years ago. There is a touch of Algernon Blackwood in the way that the old radio eventually tunes in to the trees, London's last forests. There is also a reference to Turner, painter of light who was also a mystical poet. The narrator's dreams seem more real than his mundane existence, and he finds physical evidence of this - the page of an unknown book, a chess piece.

The revelation of Ambrose Crashaw's true fate coincides with the discovery of a precious truth, and the story ends with a vision of unity, of broken things made whole and the fallen lifted up. In a way it is the ultimate anti-twist ending,  to tell us that all can be well after fall, despite everything we know and have gone through.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

'My Heretical Existence'

This compact tale starts with a fascinating premise - that there are 'tribes' who never leave certain narrow areas of major cities, and never marry out. Mark Samuels' narrator hears of one such extended family in Sartor Street (a nod towards Thomas Carlyle, perhaps, a sort of heretic?). He is also infatuated with a young woman called Adela who goes to a pub near Sartor Street. He never dares approach her, simply getting drunk in her presence. Then one night he goes off in a random direction and finds himself in unknown territory. He finds a pub, 'The Hourglass Stilled', but when he enters he discovers a clientele far from welcoming.
I could hear the creak of wooden sinews, the flexing of wooden muscles, and the grinding of wooden teeth. Their faces were painted garishly in a motley attempt to convey the human, but oh, the deadly lifelessness of their expressions! Their glass eyes were without lustre, like grey flowers.

Inevitably, Adela is one of the mannequins. Blackout. Our narrator recovers in hospital, and is informed that there is no such place as Sartor Street. Yet he seems to be suffering from a strange ailment that leads to a stiffening of the limbs...

This is fine example of urban horror, with echoes of Fritz Leiber as well as Ligotti and, perhaps, Machen. I'm not quite sure what is 'heretical' about it, but titles are tricky.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

'Outside Interference'

We're back in the ghastly world of modern corporate life. One thing one can't accuse Mark Samuels of avoiding is a unifying theme. Written in Darkness is saying, to coin a phrase, that modern life is rubbish, and fetid rubbish at that. Admittedly he is not presenting any kind of alternative to our interconnected global culture, but it is a not a fiction writer's job to present manifestos. He calls 'em as he sees 'em,

'Outside Interference' is set in a bleak office building somewhere in central/eastern Europe. Not just any old bleak office building, but one being phased out by a crew of soon-to-redundant workers. A viciously cold winter closes in as the hapless crew struggle to shift junk from unheated offices. Things start to go wrong when the lift malfunctions and a member of the team is turned into a kind of zombie (thought the Z-word is never used).

With frantic inevitability attempts to escape or confront the menace that lurks below sub-basement level fail. And then the discarded, the unwanted, the human detritus of modern capitalism, are transformed. The shadows of Ligotti and, arguably, the late Joel Lane fall across this wintry mindscape. I have no idea if the ending is supposed to be downbeat in the strict sense of the word.

In our running review tomorrow a different theme emerges as everyone marches through the factory gates to a stirring rendition of 'Sing As We Go' by Gracie Fields.

No, not really.

Small Screen Folk Horror

King of the Castle: The Complete Series
A tower block harbours mystical secrets

Over here you can see a list of Seventies folk horror TV shows. Folk horror is a somewhat flexible term, but I think the list includes enough examples to give anyone a pretty good idea. We're talking about deep history, mythology, a sense of the past bearing down on the present and shaping it. Throw in demonic, ghostly, or otherwise paranormal phenomena, and you're on the way.

Raven (1977)
Raven

I remember a few of the shows listed, as a Seventies teenage telly viewer. Children of the Stones, Doctor Who - Image of the Fendahl, and the one-off Christmas ghost story 'Stigma' caught my attention. I don't remember the ITV shows King of the Castle or Raven, perhaps because were very much a BBC household. 'A Photograph' in the Play for Today strand is also a new one on me, and it's available to watch on YouTube.

Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl (1977)
Image of the Fendahl

It's interesting to note that Nigel Kneale's Quatermass finale, also made by ITV, had strong folk horror elements. It was all about stone circles and a hippie back-to-nature cult with sinister undertones. However, the overall feel of the show is dystopian sci-fi, so perhaps it's a marginal example.

Monday, 20 March 2017

'My World Has No Memories'

After an 'old dark house by the graveyard' story, another favourite sub-genre gets an outing in Written in Darkness. This time it's the nautical weird tale, exemplified by authors as diverse as Lovecraft, Hodgson, and Conan Doyle.

Mark Samuels' take on the idea is to have his protagonist wake up in the cabin of a sailing vessel. The first person narrator has no memories, and finds himself unable to contact anyone via radio. The GPS is not working either. But there is an odd marine entity in a jar in the cabin. A thing like 'a monstrous flower the size of a grapefruit'. A whiff of the entity's odour conjures strange visions.

The narrator speculates that he set out on this yacht alone to avoid some global cataclysm. This might explain the failure of all technology. But the thing in the jar bothers him, especially as it seems to be trying to communicate telepathically in a way that threaten's the seafarer's sanity. So he throws it overboard. And it comes back. Then bloated human corpses start rising from the deep. Not just any old corpses, either. The narrator has seen that rotting face before, in the mirror.

As you'll have gathered, this is another tale of abject nihilism. The finale does not see the narrator finding himself in Plymouth and getting home in time for tea. Again, then, Samuels insists on the essential inhumanity of the universe, and the inability of a 'normal' man to cope with cosmic reality.

Sleep tight. More soon.


Sunday, 19 March 2017

'Alistair'

Here we are, halfway through Mark Samuels' Written in Darkness and we have our first 'traditional' tale of the supernatural. Well, sort of. It begins with a fine description of Gryme House in Highgate, the ancestral home of Amelia Grymes. Her husband, James, moves into the old house with his wife and small son, Alistair, when Amelia's grandparents die.

James Thorpe is a failed novelist who has moved into biography, and his choices of subjects are interesting: Thomas de Quincey, Anna Kavan, and Count Stenbock. All are in some ways marginal figures who produced interesting work on the margins of major literary movements. Perhaps this is where Samuels sees himself?

Strange things happen at Gryme House, events linked to the overgrown West End of nearby Highgate Cemetery. Alistair goes sleepwalking in his Scooby Doo pyjamas, and has night terrors that only Amelia can quell. James, like many fathers, feels inadequate and somewhat remote from his son. But he is also disturbed by the way Amelia seems to talk to Alistair in an unknown tongue - one that sounds like no human language.

The story consists of three sections, each progressively stranger. There is a touch of Lovecraft in the bizarre ending, which presages a very bad breakup for poor old James. Just as the previous stories reveal politics and business as rotten with cosmic corruption, so family life is here shown to be a grim facade. While a relatively slight tale, 'Alistair' stays in the mind perhaps because it is so economical and unsentimental.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

'The Ruins of Reality'

The fourth story in Mark Samuels' collection Written in Darkness is so bleak it's almost funny. It begins with an account of an economic recession that threatens to bring down Western civilisation, and the appearance of something called the N Factory. The new factory system promises fulfilling employment, but I don't think the reader is supposed to be fooled by that for a minute.

The odd thing is that mass unemployment is not, really, the major problem now - though of course it could be in future. What people are really unhappy about is that so many of those in work are struggling. Perhaps that is too complex a crisis? Because 'The Ruins of Reality' takes a very simple, straight line between the idea of old-school Depression-era poverty and yet another Ligottian take on the futility of existence. A Ligotti collection is even name-checked - the factory is managed by 'Dead Dreamers'.

The story is a kind of prose-poem to misery, ugliness, and despair. It transcends conventional dystopian fiction because the crushing of humanity's hopes leads to a collapse in the natural order. There are parallels with Lovecraft's 'Nyarlathotep', here. A black aurora dominates the sky as a permanent winter grips the globe, and some form of unidentifiable radiation sickness strikes down millions. The N Factory has possibly liberated the dreams of the masses, allowing them to influence reality. It is a 'cosmic blight'.

I am beginning to doubt whether this book contains any whimsical ghost stories about Edwardian gentlemen scholars.

Going Deep



Not strictly supernatural, but I like this kind of thing, especially when Mr. B is involved.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

'An Hourglass of the Soul'

I continue my running review of Written in Darkness by Mark Samuels with a story that harks back to my teenage years. I should hasted to  add that this tale of a corporate software expert who finds himself at a mysterious underground site in the Gobi Desert is more exotic than my schooldays in Sunderland. But in terms of content and approach 'An Hourglass of the Soul' is very like the New Wave science fiction I read as a spotty lad.

The story begins in on thedismal borders of Ligotti territory, with interestingly-named Drax in a state of puzzlement over his role at his new employer, a typically vast and faceless multinational corporation. Things grow even more puzzling when he's told to prepare for a flight to Mongolia at the shortest possible notice. Drax gamely travels thousands of miles by airliner, then by small prop plane, to caverns that house the Library of Gholraqy. This houses 'scrolls of inconceivable antiquity that foretell of the devolution of gods to men'.

One might think ancient wisdom would be of little use to the modern business mentality, and one would be right. The scrolls are ignored, despised relics of merely spiritual value. Instead the caverns are prized for their remoteness, an ideal place to develop a revolutionary new form of data processor. When this mysterious breakthrough is revealed the story ends with a revelation that might have been conceived by Harlan Ellison or Philip K. Dick.

Another bleak tale of an isolated individual put through the wringer of the world machine, then. An overarching theme has not so much emerged by now as jumped out of the page and poked me in the eye. What next, I wonder?

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

Two Short Films On Themes I Like



Yes, we are in the realms of Lovecraft for 'Blight', while the second mini-movie, 'Fool's Errand', is set in the Land of the Pharaohs.



Both films were written by Chris Goodman, who also directed 'Fool's Errand' and co-directed 'Blight' with Katie Walshe.

''The Other Tenant'

The second story in Mark Samuels' collection Written in Darkness is very different to the first. Or at least, that's the initial impression. However, a few pages into 'The Other Tenant' is seemed clear to me that it was in many ways a pendant or thematic sequel to the first story.

The tale is simple enough, and might be an example of 'miserablist' sub-genre of British horror that emerged in the Nineties. A man with a chronic, mysterious illness is forced to give up work and moves into a new flat. His neighbour plays the television too loud and seems to watch a never-ending stream of horror films, judging by the sound tracks coming through the wall. When he complains the protagonist is told that the flat next door is in fact empty...

So far, so simple. But the backstory of the invalid Zachary echoes some of the themes of 'A Call to Greatness'.This is another story about the decline of the West. Zachary is left-wing in his views, and an atheist, despising the idea of the soul. Samuels hints strongly that this is the reason why his illness defies medical analysis, because it is spiritual in nature. 'His intrinsic bitterness had been too apparent, even to those who were ideologically in sympathy with him', so he has no friends and is not loved.

The Grand Guignol conclusion when Zachary breaks into the flat next door is a revelation of his own private hell. Conventional in form if not in feel, this tale even ends with another tenant moving into Zachary's flat. Yet again, the telly next door comes 'blaring through the wall'. A bleak take on modernity, then, but all the more convincing for that.

Monday, 13 March 2017

'A Call to Greatness'

I'm restarting my almost-popular practice of running reviews with Written in Darkness by Mark Samuels, forthcoming from Chomu Press. I received a PDF copy for review.

The first story could not be more timely. 'A Call to Greatness' begins with a Eurocrat in Paris who is disillusioned with the current state of the West. Enter a mysterious stranger bearing a story from the Russian civil war that followed the October Revolution of 1917. The story-within-a-story is that of a White Russian cavalry force led by a ferocious Christian mystic, A reporter for a British newspaper sets out to get an interview, and finds himself conscripted by a White commander, the Baron. The Baron is a far from sympathetic character, and his troops slaughter their way across Eurasia until sustained Bolshevik attacks wear them down. Eventually the hapless British reporter is the Baron's only follower, whereupon the anti-hero heads for Tibet in search of wisdom.

In terms of style it's a flawless effort. Samuels has a slightly ironic detachment from his characters. The Baron is a complex figure - a barbaric yet erudite man claiming to be the saviour of civilisation. Is he the lesser of two evils? With the benefit of hindsight perhaps the Whites, for all their brutality, were just that. The Russian angle, which informs a slightly predictable twist ending to the framing narrative, is so prescient that the tale might have been written last week. All in all it's a very promising start to the collection. So this is a 'weird tale', certainly, but one that that at its core is no stranger than many of today's news headlines.

Keep Voting, Guys

Look to windward, or at least to the right. And up a bit, possibly. You can see the poll for most popular story in the latest issue. Have you voted yet?

Notice that it's anybody's victory at the moment, but there's a strong showing by both ST regular Tina Rath and newcomer Giselle Leeb. It's all very exciting. In my opinion.

Just vote, already.


Supernatural Tales 34

Friday, 10 March 2017

Review - Dr Upex and the Great God Ing

Antony Oldknow's recent collection from Dragonfly Press is subtitled 'Fifteen Weird Unexpected Stories'. I think we all have a rough idea what unexpected means, but what weird fiction might be is the subject of a lively and ongoing debate. So, how would I define this genre, or sub-genre?

Characteristics of 'weird fiction'

1. Isolated/misfit characters, from M.R. James to Aickman

2. Dysfunctional, failed, or defunct relationships, with more than a whiff of the erotic

3. Erudite references - strange knowledge - Poe & Lovecraft spring to mind

4. Slightly archaic or otherwise odd language

5. Humour - somewhat rarer, but again Poe has a lot of it

6. Exotic locations - Blackwood is a good example

7. Fatalism - sense of grim inevitability, lack of self-determination (see 1)

If I'm right, the weirdness factor is certainly high in Oldknow's tales. The title story concerns a military doctor recovering from serious injuries sustained in North Africa in 1943. Dr Upex enjoys listening to Gustav Holst's music, and seems to encounter the composer himself. This takes him by a kind of dream-logic to a meeting with Ing, the Nordic God of Becoming, a rather reassuring figure with a broad linguistic influence.

Dysfunctional relationships do not trouble Dr Upex, but are much in evidence elsewhere. Perhaps a more precise term would be 'the femme fatale', though that is not quite accurate. Olknow's characters are often men who become obsessed with mysterious women, often to the point of stalking, but never achieve satisfaction or closure. In 'Ruelle des Martyrs' (from ST #26) a man gives a lift to a woman during a rainstorm and finds himself in a strange house.

The set up is reminiscent of many vampire tales, but here the story develops in another direction. As a poet Oldknow seems to favour imagery over plot, a risky stratagem in the often over-literal world of horror fiction, but he has a high hit rate. What is the secret of the 'Woman With Red Gloves'? Why does she never remove them? I've no idea, but this is probably the point. No revelation could be as strange as the elusive beauty the narrator falls for and then loses.

I'm not sure if femme fatale is the right term for Oldknow's typical woman, as they tend to be more ambiguous than destructive. But a recurring theme is the middle-aged man, often an academic, who becomes fascinated by a woman whose motives are ambiguous, and whose very existence might sometimes be in doubt. Vignettes such as 'Cathedral Woman', 'Bluebells, Lilac, and Chocolate', and 'Bathsheba' are all in their way erotic tales, but each has its own peculiar tone. 'Rachel', an extract from a novel in progress, is a somewhat surreal take on noir fiction, complete with hard-bitten crime reporter and sassy women that smack him in the mouth.

Where more serious violence occurs in these stories it varies from a rather unusual car crash in 'Accident' to the almost comical shark attack that rounds off a (sort of) fishing tale, 'The Catch'. Humour, albeit of a twisted kind, is seldom far from the surface, as in the murder victim Miss Topping in 'Yellow Lines'. 'The Man in the Tree' features a very unreliable narrator of a Poe-esque kind and ends with a surprising twist.

Can a story be too weird? Perhaps. I confess that a few stories here left me baffled, perhaps because the implications of the many ideas in them are never fully realised. But at his best Oldknow is lively, accomplished, and a constant fund of esoteric information. He can offer an excellent window into the over-heated mind of a young veteran of the British Malayan campaign in 'Roll, Rattle, and Shake', yet also play tricky post-modernist games in 'If You Will Believe This'.

Considered all in all this is a demanding, somewhat difficult collection, but one that I think more adventurous readers will find rewarding.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Tatsuya Morino

A Japanese take on Gothic illustration, here, taken from this page. See if you can guess what they are meant to be before you click on the link and find out.

Gothic monster illustration by Tatsuya Morino --

Gothic monster illustration by Tatsuya Morino --


Sunday, 5 March 2017

Frustration!

Our frustration that M.R. James is not as popularly recognised as Edgar Allan Poe and H.P. Lovecraft will never cease.
The above is a Tweet from the Twitter machine, courtesy of the publisher Shadows at the Door. I'm sure a lot of people will agree with it, but others might quibble. I had a bit of a ponder and a few thoughts (or near-thoughts) emerged.

1, I think M.R. James is probably as well known as Lovecraft to bookish British people, perhaps a little more so. He is also fairly familiar to older TV viewers, like me, thanks to the BBC's dramatisations of his work in the Seventies.

2. Lovecraft produced a larger body of work than M.R. James, including several short novels, As an American writer he has a bigger 'pre-sold' audience than MRJ, an English academic whose output of fiction was relative slight.

3. Poe has had a lot longer to build up a head of steam and of course a great many film, TV, and radio adaptations of his work exist. Lovecraft has also done quite well in this area. Again, M.R. James lags behind somewhat, and quite a few adaptations of his work are lost (i.e. those in the ITV Mystery and Imagination series).

4. Poe and Lovecraft have more immediate appeal, especially to adolescent readers, because they are 'on the nose'. Some of their work demonstrates subtlety and restraint, but a lot of their stories say to the novice reader: "Hey, come and see the freaky shit that's going down!" MRJ's lighter, anecdotal approach might seem rather dull to fans of full-on Gothic horror. He is subtle and witty, as well as erudite, and his work takes a bit more effort to appreciate.

5. M.R. James is classed as a ghost story writer, and this is sometimes taken to mean he produced watered-down, genteel stuff that's not very exciting. Untrue, but labels tend to stick.

A lot more might be said on the subject, especially re: Poe and Lovecraft's attitude to science, an area M.R. James did not overtly concern himself with. But, as I said above, these are just a few of my own half-developed notions.

Image result for m.r. james

Friday, 3 March 2017

Codex Zothique

Image result for clark ashton smith

Cardinal Cox, Peterborough's premier poet of the numinous and strange, has published his eleventh pamphlet of Lovecraftian poetry. This collection of seven poems takes its inspiration from the works of Clark Ashton Smith (1893-1961).

I have to admit that I never really 'got' CAS, and I suspect I never will. I think he is one of those writers you have to meet at the right time. I first encountered Lovecraft (and M.R. James, and Algernon Blackwood) in my late teens. I also became a huge fan of Jack Vance around that time. Smith I did not encounter till much later, and his blend of heroic fantasy and horror left me cold. Impressed, but cold.

Image result for clark ashton smith

That said, Codex Zothique is a good read. It could be argued that poetry is a better literary form than the short story when it comes to 'Smithian' ideas. Less is more, and all that. Thus the four stanzas of 'Hyperborea' convey the sense of ancient civilizations falling to be replaced by others more effectively than a long saga. Mu gives way to Lemuria, Lemuria falls and Atlantis rises, only to suffer its well-known fate. 'Last Galley Out of Lephara' focuses on an 'Everyship' seeking a safe port in a world of shifting peoples and few certainties.

'Sing heave the oars - curse your birth
We're bound for the edge of the Earth'

The sense of multi-layered history and playful blending of fable and history informs 'Guns of Averoigne', with the King's Musketeers sent south to investigate reports of monsters. This recalls the Beast of Gevaudan, a genuine (?) werewolf story from 18th century France, The poem is also a neatly-crafted short story, complete with twist ending.

We move into the 20th century with 'Caliphornia', a condensed guide to all the fringe movements of the Western USA. There are quite a few, and Cox links these to both the first Jesuit missionaries and the corresponding societies that Smith and Lovecraft belonged to. 'Captain Volmar's Space War' launched itself playfully into the cosmos, and lists some of my favourite constellations. 'Xiccarph' offers the inevitable, Stapledonian end, with a vision of a decadent interstellar tyrant. Sauron meets Darth Vader.

'Zothique's Deserts' rounds off the collection with an elegy to the dead realm as 'the mill of time' grinds down all its former glories. 'Every aspiration is turned to rust', an apt sentiment for the modern realm of Britain, or so it seems to me. Oops, bit political there.

As always Cardinal Cox provides erudite and witty footnotes to add an extra dimension to his verses. Together with the poems these notes offer a more colourful and inspiring alternate history than the one we are stuck with.

If you'd like a copy of Codex Zothique, send an SAE to:

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay
Peterborough PE2 5RB

Or email cardinalcox1@yahoo.co.uk

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Thursday, 2 March 2017

A Podcast to the Curious

The Familiar - Illustration by M. Grant KellermeyerIt's been a good while since I mentioned the lads over at APttC, who took upon themselves the task of discussing every single story by M.R. James, plus his unfinished work and 'Stories I Have Tried to Write'. A Herculean task - all credit to Will Ross and Mike Taylor for undertaking it.

If you haven't heard their cheerful, unpretentious opinions you should give them a try. You might not always agree with their views, but they always have something intelligent and thought-provoking to say.

They've finished MRJ's fiction and now they've moved on to stories he admired. Not surprisingly Le Fanu features in the latest podcast, and Brian Showers of The Swan River Press is their guest expert. The story they discuss is 'The Familiar'.

Look out, owls! Illustration by M. Grant Kellermeyer of Oldstyle Tales Press, which is also well worth a look.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Poll for Best Story in ST 34!

Supernatural Tales 34Yes, it's polling time, and if you look to the right (and possibly up a bit) you will see an opportunity to vote on your fave story in the latest issue.

Winner will as usual be rewarded with the princely sum of twenty-five quid. What that will actually be worth in dollars by the time the poll ends is another matter, of course.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Peanuts

One Step Beyond!

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Yes, 'One Step Beyond' is the title of an instrumental hit single and an album by much-loved British ska-influeced popsters Madness. But they took that title from a TV series so obscure that, to my shame, I'd never heard of it before it popped up on YouTube. It is not brilliant, but has some good moments and certainly qualifies as an interesting curiosity.

The resemblance to The Twilight Zone is apparent. This is, I think, largely down to the fact that the TV formats of the time were fairly rigid. The host gently ushering the viewer into the story and then offering some thoughts at the end is precisely what Rod Serling didn't want to do in TTZ. Too hackneyed. But he gave in to network pressure and did it, so that now a lot of other guys look as if they copied Serling.

Anyway, here are a couple of supernatural tales that have lasted reasonably well. First up is no less a horror legend than Donald Pleasence, in a British-based episode.



Meanwhile, back  in the states, everyone is talking cool and hep and so forth. Get with the beat, Daddy-O. But the central conceit of 'The Hand' could be straight from the notebooks of Nathaniel Hawthorne.