Friday, 5 February 2016

Spooky Book Arrives!

Malevolent Visitants by C.E. Ward is now available at Sarob Press, but it's going fast. I thought I'd mention it as I've just become the proud owner of a review copy. The superb Paul Lowe cover is a hint as to its contents. Malevolent indeed! With swords and that. Anyone who knows Clive Ward's fiction will know that he is 'old school', creating modern tales that are solidly in the tradition of M.R. James. If you like traditional English ghost stories try and get hold of this book, not to mention his previous Sarob volumes Vengeful Ghosts and Seven Ghosts & One Other.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Horthólary: Tales from Montagascony - Review

Horthólary: Tales from Montagascony by Michael Reynier (Tartarus Press, 2015) contains four stories set in a fictitious, but very well-realised, region of France. The time is the 18th century, a new scientific enlightenment vies with both superstition and Catholic dogma, and Summanus Horthólary, a provincial scholar, keeps getting involved with weird events. It only occurred to me after I'd finished that Sherlock Holmes was of French descent, on his mother's side. It may be that there were a few Horthólary genes in there, as the investigative methods of the two men are not dissimilar.

The first story, 'The Angel of Pessane', sees Horthólary investigate an apparent murder. The body of an eccentric Englishman (is there any other kind in France?) is found in a forest near the city. The corpse lies in fresh snow, and there are no footprints around the body when it is discovered by local children. The local bishop, Philippe Rapin (the scientific sleuth's arch-enemy) immediately blames gypsies for the supposed crime. But Horthólary sees a very different story in the evidence - or lack of it. To avoid major spoilers I can only say that the story reads like a hybrid of Wells and Conan Doyle, for all its French setting.

In 'Dii Nixi' Reynier takes us back to Horthólary's childhood in a tale that begins with the arrival of a celestial visitor. There's a distinct whiff of Lovecraft about the plot, if not the prose. Reynier's clear, slightly ironic style conveys superbly the vicious rivalry between the local peasant clans, and the way in which the emergence of a weird otherworldly menace affects the destinies of a barefoot Romeo and Juliet. Reynier has a gift for evoking the beauties of untamed nature, and contrasting them with the often grubby ways of our own species.

'The Nephilim', as the title suggests, concerns legendary beings said to inhabit the desolate plateau that looms over Montagascony. Here we find young Horthólary and another student despatched by their tutor to investigate mysterious fossil finds that (contrary to reason, if not scripture) support the existence of giants. What the investigators uncover is not merely startling, it also terrifying, and the price of knowledge proves very steep for one of them. 

The final story, 'Nemestrinus', sees Rapin - now promoted to Archbishop - engaged in a heretic hunt that sets him at odds with the aged Professor Horthólary. In all of these stories Reynier makes no bones about the brutality of an era that, in many a BBC costume drama, is often prettified and shown from the perspective of the well-to-do. Here we see the reality of life in a society where the poor are almost powerless and torture is a routine instrument of 'justice'. There is also a very convincing depiction of witchcraft as it might have been (as opposed to how the witch hunters imagined it).

Overall, these stories succeed in evoking Reynier's imaginary province extremely well, and it's refreshing to find that Montagascony's inhabitants are as three-dimensional as its varied topography. There is a wealth of telling detail; thus we learn that Horthólary's father, a clockmaker, wears 'linen shirts several sizes too small for him, a custom adopted so that the cuffs do no interfere with his delicate work'. In addition, the author's wealth of historical, occult, and scientific knowledge supports but never overburdens each plot. These stories certainly qualify as weird fiction of a high order. Reynier's work deserves to be better known.

Note: I received a free ebook from Tartarus for review purposes.

Satanic Goat Peril!

I don't bother with 'news' items about ghosts, as a rule, because a. there are just too many of them and b. most of them are quite silly. But I feel that claiming you were driven out of your house by a Satanic Goat is worthy of note. As Cole Porter so very nearly wrote.
The haunting spectre of a satanic goat has left a woman so terrified of her home that she's put it up for sale. 
Vanessa Mitchell's cottage has been dubbed "Britain's most haunted" after a series of spooky incidents prompted the terrified home owner to search for a brave buyer. 
The 43-year-old claims to have been shoved while heavily pregnant, smacked on the bottom and to have seen blood splattered across her floor whilst living in the house in St Osyth, Essex.
I don't want to trivialise Ms Mitchell's plight, but being smacked on the bottom and seeing blood spattered about the place are not always paranormal phenomena, and that goes double for Essex.

Oh, hang on.
The property, also known as "The Cage", was formerly a medieval prison and is said to have hosted one of England's most infamous witch trials, in which eight women were killed.
Well, that would have Mulder convinced from the get-go, while Scully would point out that anyone living in such a historically charged environment might well be haunted by bad dreams and hallucinations, and interpret even the most commonplace event in the context of a rather simplistic, Hammer film view of English folk history. Then a cup would fly across the room and shatter against the wall.

But fair play, if you're going to encounter demonic forces, it would seem to be the ideal place. And, if we riff on Nigel Kneale's 'stone tape' hypothesis, perhaps the real horrors of the cage have somehow been imprinted on the very fabric of the building. If we accept that the experiences and imaginings of people can be 'replayed' (a very big If, as there's no evidence they can) it would be the ideal site to encounter our ancestors' worst fears. Including, presumably, goat demons. 

Put another way, maybe living in a place called The Cage isn't the wisest of moves. It might make a perfect bank or supermarket.

vanessa mitchell
Paranormal forces make photographer lean sideways

Monday, 1 February 2016

Votes for Algernon (and a radio rarity)

I've put up another opinion poll to the right (or above and to the right, depending on when you read this). I wondered if people would care to choose their favourite Algernon Blackwood story from the ones listed? You can vote for more than one.

To be honest, I could have just put three there - 'The Willows', 'The Wendigo', and 'Ancient Sorceries' (the one about the French town o' cats) I've sure the battle for first place will involve 'The Willows' and 'The Wendigo'. But I thought I'd give people a wider choice. I might just as well have added 'The Glamour of the Snow' or 'A Victim of Higher Space', as Algy did write rather a lot of good, readable tales.

In other Blackwood news, someone on Facebook recently posted a link to an old BBC radio drama based on AB's novel The Human Chord.  (The link leads to Dropbox, but I don't think you have to have that app for it to work.) It's by Sheila Hodgson, best known as the writer of a series of excellent plays featuring M.R. James encountering 'real' spooks. But see what you think of this one. And note, this off-air recording is not of great quality.