Thursday, 26 February 2015

Countdown! The Ghost Story Awards

Mark Valentine reminds the world that the deadline for nominating your favourite ghost stories of 2014 is approaching.

The deadline is midnight on 28 February.

To vote, simply send me your choices for the best story, and best anthology or collection, published for the first time last year. You have up to three (equal) votes in each category.

Let Mark now your trenchantly-held opinions before March arrives! His email address is:

markl.valentine@btinternet.com

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The Werewolf of Lisbon (Review)

Back in 2000 when I set out to publish Supernatural Tales, it didn't occur to me that it might have some therapeutic effects. However, when I accepted a story called 'Cats and Architecture' by Chico Kidd it started a major supernatural saga. It turned out that Chico, who also wrote supernatural fiction for some years under her 'real' name A.F. Kidd, had been suffering from bad writer's block. But when she crafted a tale of a Portuguese sea captain who escapes from a sorcerer's thrall in Venice the creative log-jam was cleared, in a big way.

Since then she has written many more short stories and two novels about Luis da Silva, the captain and owner of the barque Isabella. Da Silva is cursed, or blessed - depending on your viewpoint - with the ability to see ghosts. He lost an eye to a demon to gain his ghost-seer status. And he also remained entangled with a shadowy world of strange beings and paranormal conspiracies that exists parallel to, and intersects with, history as we know it.

Thus the latest da Silva novel begins in Lisbon in what I assume, for various reasons, is the year 1913, where a serial killer is slaughtering apparently random victims in a very disturbing way. The killer is dubbed The Werewolf, which is not good news for da Silva's second mate, Harris. The amiable Harris is a werewolf, but tends to stick to rats. Reasoning that this will not sound persuasive to an angry mob with access to silver bullets, Harris and his captain both have a strong incentive to find the killer. 

But there's more to it than that, of course. Indeed, the serial killer sub-plot is almost a side issue compared to the main thrust of the novel. A great calamity is coming that will set the world in turmoil. An obnoxious British politician, Sir Robert Munro, is seeking ultimate power and has gone to Hell itself to discover the means. Da Silva is recruited to look into Munro's antics by some concerned citizens in London - among them is a certain Carnacki. And so the scene is set for a long, richly-textured historical adventure that happens to involve ghosts, demons, witches, prophecies, heroes, more ghosts, swordplay, and much plotting and counter-plotting.

In the blurb for the novel da Silva's cohorts are referred to as the Scooby Gang, and it's clear that the author is a huge fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (There are a few straight lifts from that series in terms of dialogue, notably least the use of the phrase 'Bored, now.') As in Buffy we get a lot of colourful characters who have complex personal lives as well as various unusual powers. Indeed, only a handful of the major characters - of which there are about twenty - don't have some kind of paranormal ability or magical knowledge. This gives the adventure an epic sweep, although it may make the reader wish for a diagram to illustrate how all these people are involved with one another. But then, the same could be said for anyone starting to watch Buffy in the middle of season four.

Indeed, there's enough in the way of ideas and action in TWoL for two good novels. The 'werewolf' story more or less fades away, superseded by a quest for mystical objects, the Grail Hallows, which must be retrieved for the Fisher King. Da Silva must face a series of challenges to prove himself worthy to obtain the mystical objects, and is assisted by comrades old and new. Prolifically inventive, Kidd is careful to shepherd the reader through the action and remind you who is who, and interweaves several parallel narratives while keeping the focus on the captain.

Since I've mentioned Buffy, it's worth noting that Luis da Silva bears a passing resemblance to the hero of a less well-known Joss Whedon show. Da Silva is a bit like Malcolm Reynolds in Firefly. He is the owner and master of a trading vessel whose crew and passengers are unorthodox and is not always law-abiding. The main difference is that, unlike Mal, Luis tries to stay on the right side of the law and has the a loving family - his wife Emilia and their two children. This brings its own problems, of course, not least because of the seductive charms of the Russian witch Tatiana, who plays a key role in his quest.

The actual quest for the Grail Hallows itself did seem a bit rushed to me, as if the author realised she'd spent too much time on the build-up and needed to get things sorted before page 500 loomed. This is a pity, because for my money the last few chapters contain some of the best writing in the book. My favourite passage is - on the face of it - quite peripheral to the action, but might be seen as the spiritual heart of the quest. The Isabella passes Cape Trafalgar and encounters the ghosts of the ships destroyed in Nelson's victory. It's a truly eerie moment, and foreshadows the greater conflicts that we know will soon overwhelm da Silva's (relatively) peaceful world.

You can buy the book in the US here, and in the UK here. Chico Kidd's blog is here



Friday, 20 February 2015

We Are The Martians!

Well I personally may not be a Martian (though I sometimes wonder), but here we have the contents of a new book about Nigel Kneale. 

I'm a huge admirer of NK's work, which spans the horror, sci-fi and thriller genres. He inadvertently launched Hammer Horror thanks to the film adaptations of his Quatermass TV serials. He was a superb short story writer, and his only collection -Tomato Cain - is well worth seeking out (but deserves a cheap paperback reprint IMO). His one-off play The Year of the Sex Olympics accurately foretold the coming of reality TV. The Stone Tape is a classic ghost story with an sf rationale. His series Beasts is a masterpiece of low-budget imaginative fiction. He wrote about aliens, yetis, monsters (some in human form), ghosts, and just about anything else that you can imagine. 

And now here comes a book that looks at all this and more! Among the contributors are two stars of contemporary horror who have graced the pages of ST - Lynda E. Rucker, who grew up in America, wishes she'd encountered Kneale's work when she was a girl. Gary McMahon writes about the film The Abominable Snowman, which is worth seeking out for both its intelligence and genuine eeriness. All in all, it's a star cast of contributors, among them being Ramsey Campbell, Stephen Volk, Mark Gatiss, Jeremy Dyson, David Sutton, Stephen Laws, and - as they say - many others.

All credit to Spectral Press for celebrating the work of one of Britain's greatest sf and horror writers. Here's a preview of the possible cover.

"We are the Martians: the Legacy of Nigel Kneale" edited by Neil Snowdon. Artwork ©2014 David Chatton Barker

Monday, 16 February 2015

Friends of the Dead

Please note that this review contains a few spoilers. I hope I've avoided giving away anything important, but the butler did it.

James Doig's new collection is an interesting demonstration of how wrong-headed I can be about writers. I often categorise ghost story authors in one of two mental files. In one I tend to put writers I consider to be 'pragmatists', in the other I put the 'poets'. A pragmatist is essentially an ideas man (or woman), whose stories pivot on a central conceit or depend on a crucial twist. A poet is not devoid of ideas but his/her stories are more lyrical and depend to some extent on atmosphere for effect.

James Doig, though, proves my little system to be inadequate, because while many of the stories in his first book are idea-driven, they are all dependent upon a well-evoked atmosphere to work. This is true even of vignettes, of which there are several good ones here. 'The Land Where Fairies Linger' is a very effective evocation of the way strange, numinous creatures can impinge upon the lives of practical people. 'The Kindness of Strangers' offers every parent's worst nightmare - or one of them, at least. 'The Dead Heart', at just over two pages, still manages to convey a sense of loss, of a life not lived as it might have been, via a seemingly supernatural event. And in 'Threads' the author conjures up a compelling vision of colonial misrule in Australia, seen through the prism of a terrible family secret.

Among the longer stories we find the same lyricism, but with the bonus of fascinating historical research. James Doig currently works for the National Archive in Australia and he has a Ph.D in mediaeval history. But, again, the author surprises us (or me, at least) by taking a different line on the (M.R.) Jamesian world of dusty library catalogues and obscure documents.

In 'Malware', for instance, an IT security expert is called in by a firm making big bucks from helping people trace their ancestors. Of course the firm relies on a brigade of volunteers - many of them experts - to scan in old records of the census and so on. But what can this have to do with the way certain records are vanishing from all the company's servers? What can they have in common? The answer is a new twist on an old idea, and a very good one.

Several stories concern the last leader of an independent Wales, the remarkable and mysterious Owain Glyndwr (Shakespeare's Glendower). In 'The Wild Hunt' a student probing what he assumes to be 15th century propaganda has a rude awakening in a library during a storm. Glyndwr also features in 'Out of the West', with its list of strange and terrifying beings evoked by a sorcerer to harry the Saxon.

Glyndwr was of course a big man in the Welsh Marches, a region that clearly lies close to Doig's heart. In 'Mathrafal' an archaeological dig at a border castle yields more than academic information, and features a nicely-handled horror. The same can be said of 'Wolferton Hall', where the investigation of a family crypt stirs up something best left alone. These stories are bound to please fans of the traditional ghostly tale. They are also effective examples of 'quiet horror', as is the title story. The different is that 'Friends of the Dead' goes somewhat further than James or his disciples ever did in one key respect. I was genuinely surprised by the climax of this one, and that's not so common an occurrence as it used to be.

Overall this collection ticks all the right boxes for me. James Doig is a skilful craftsman who constructs narratives that gradually take his protagonists - along with the reader - into darker and darker territory, until eventually they find themselves lost to what we are told is reality. At least some of these stories should scare or unsettle you. All credit to Sarob Press for bringing a very good and somewhat overlooked author to discerning readers.

And here is the excellent Paul Lowe cover. I think I know which story is referred to here, but I dare not look too closely...




Friday, 13 February 2015

Phrygian Bonnet Update!

I've received an email from the estimable Rob Lloyd Parry, which I will share with the eager multitudes.

Pub Readings
I shall be doing a rehearsed reading of 'The Door in the Wall,' a short story by H G Wells, upstairs at the Maypole pub in Cambridge on Sunday 8th March at 8pm.
Also a rehearsed reading of Charles's Dickens ghost story 'The Signalman' at the Devereux Pub in London, nearest tube Temple, on Monday 6th April at 8pm.
There is no charge for admission for these events, but please do let me know if you want to come, as space is limited.
I will pass round a Phrygian bonnet at the end to collect any donations or appreciations you might wish to make.

DVDs
After being out of print for several months, all three Nunkie DVDs - 'The Ash Tree', 'A Warning to the Curious' and 'A Pleasing Terror' are available again. see http://www.nunkie.co.uk/dvd.html for details.
There's a special offer for readers of this newsletter:  'A Warning to the Curious' and 'A Pleasing Terror'  for a mere £22 inc p+p.
All three will cost you £32.
Email me if you want to take advantage of the offer.

Casting the Runes
There are still a few dates left this season for Casting the Runes: in Buxton, Stafford, Preston, March, Yaxley, Sawtry, Littleport, Ramsey, Wisbech, Whittlesey, Newcastle and Bristol.
If the details aren't on my website then do drop me an email if you want to know more about any of these.

There are also some shows coming up at Hemingford Grey Manor in Feb and March - see http://www.greenknowe.co.uk/ for details.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

New James Doig Collection!

James Doig is one of the many excellent writers whose work has appeared in Ghosts & Scholars, edited by Ro Pardoe. His first collection. Friends of the Dead, has just been published by Sarob Press. You'll be pleased to hear that I've received a review copy of this fine volume and will be providing a full review in due course. I'd read the G&S stories before, of course, but they've been extensively revised and there is also plenty of material that's new to me, including two previously unpublished tales. Anyway, watch this blog for the review and enjoy the splendid Paul Lowe cover art.