Thursday, 8 December 2016

This Spectacular Darkness - Review Begins

A book of critical essays is a volume to dip into, so in writing about this Tartarus collection of Joel Lane's non-fiction I will be jumping about all over the place and coming back to it over the coming days and weeks. I hope this won't seem too bitty.

One of the marks of a good critic is that they make you want to read authors you are unfamiliar with. This is certainly true of Joel Lane's assessment of Cornell Woolrich. 'The Dark Houses of Cornell Woolrich' is thoughtful, lively, and often funny. Thus Lane ends a paragraph on the 1950 novel Savage Bride by saying, 'If any reader feels compelled to revive this novel as a 'lost pulp classic', I have one suggestion: don't.' Woolrich was clearly a Man With Problems who often wrote quite badly, but after reading this essay I don't think I'll be able to resist buying at least one of his books.

Another virtue in a good critic is to remind you of authors you really should have read more, whose books you should seek out. The essay on Theodore Sturgeon, 'The Territory of the Others', is a case in point. I have read a few novels and perhaps a dozen of Sturgeon's short stories. Lane rightly points out that at the heart of all Sturgeon's fiction is a preoccupation with human identity, whether he was writing horror or science fiction, Lane points out that the author never quite fits in either genre. He was truly a one-off, and I wonder if he has been somewhat neglected because of this?




Harlan Ellison's works were never easy to get hold of when I was a lad, and like Sturgeon he is not easy to classify in genre terms. Lane's reasonable assessment - based on far greater knowledge than mine - is that Ellison has little interest in the 'genuine' supernatural, but finds it useful as a source of metaphor. The demons are almost always personal. And then there are those Ellison  titles, such as 'The Resurgence of Miss Ankle-Strap Wedgie', 'I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream', and 'Pennies, Off Dead Man's Eyes'. Other highlights are 'Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes', a good variation on the traditional ghost story, and 'Croatoan', which is unusually controversial even for Ellison. Few horror stories are as horrific as 'Croatoan' because it focuses entirely on very believable human frailty and offers no convenient cop-out.

And that's all for now. More later on this remarkable book.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

RIP Peter Vaughan

To those of us who grew up watching British TV in the Seventies Peter Vaughan was one of those actors you instantly recognised. He had a remarkable, lived-in look, and could play almost any kind of character with great aplomb. I don't think I ever saw him miscast. But there were three roles that defined him for me.

Two were in comedies. He played a grumpy, lower middle-class conservative in Citizen Smith, opposite Robert Lindsay's young revolutionary. He was even better as Genial Harry Grout, the gangster overlord of Slade Prison in the Ronnie Barker sitcom Porridge. In both roles Vaughan showed a natural flair for comedy, always just on the right side of realism, never quite making either character a simple grotesque.

But, for fans of supernatural fiction, his best role was in the classic Christmas ghost story 'A Warning to the Curious', arguably the best of the Lawrence Gordon Clark adaptions of M.R. James tales. He was one of those actors who lifted the spirits, and I was always delighted to spot him in something new. Imagine my pleasure when he turned up in Game of Thrones as a venerable mentor with a murky past. Anyway, here he is in an obscure drama based on not one but two classic ghost stories by Ambrose Bierce and A.M. Burrage. Raise a glass to a fine actor, and enjoy.






Wednesday, 30 November 2016

This Spectacular Darkness

Tartarus Press is publishing a collection of critical essays by the late Joel Lane. The title of the book comes from a piece published in ST. Joel was a great supporter of the magazine in its early years and contributed several stories. He was a very modest man, but I don't think he'd mind me saying that his interest gave the young ST some kudos it would otherwise have lacked.



Contents: 'Foreword’ by Mark Valentine, ‘Acknowledgments’, Critical Essays for Wormwood by Joel Lane: ‘The Dark Houses of Cornell Woolrich’, ‘The October Revolution: Ray Bradbury’s Existential Paradigm for the Horror Genre’, ‘The Territory of the Others: The Dark Fiction of Theodore Sturgeon’, ‘No Secret Place: The Haunted Cities of Fritz Leiber’, ‘Ruins of Time: The Mortal Terrors of Harlan Ellison’, ‘The Ruins of Reality: Thomas Ligotti and the Uses of Disenchantment’, ‘World Gone Wrong: H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythology of Loss’, ‘Forever Always Ends: Robert Aickman’s Visions of Afterlife’. Other Critical Essays by Joel Lane: ‘Strange Eons and the Cthulhu Mythos’, ‘Negatives in Print: The Early Novels of Ramsey Campbell’, ‘Beyond the Light: The Recent Novels of Ramsey Campbell’, ‘Writers in the James Tradition: Ramsey Campbell’, ‘The Double Edge: Robert Aickman’s Supernatural Stories’, ‘The Master of Masks’, ‘A Dream by the Old Canal’, ‘Hell is Other People: Robert Bloch and the Pathologies of the Family’. Appreciations of the Writings of Joel Lane: ‘Mapping the Territory: Joel Lane’s Essays’, by John Howard, ‘The Paper Ghosts: Reflections on Five Early Stories’, by Mark Valentine, ‘“Where the Gods are Rotting”: The Poetry of Joel Lane’, by Mat Joiner, ‘Socialism or Barbarism: Joel Lane’s Blue Trilogy and the poetry of the lost’, by Nina Allan. ‘Publication History.’

 

'The Devil of Christmas' - Inside No. 9

The splendid comedy/horror series returns for a third outing, and begins with a Christmas special airing on Tuesday, December 27th. This sounds rather wonderful. And yes, that is Rula Lenska on the left.

Inside No. 9. Image shows from L to R: Celia (Rula Lenska), Julian Devonshire (Steve Pemberton), Kathy Devonshire (Jessica Raine), Klaus (Reece Shearsmith), Toby Devonshire (George Bedford). Copyright: BBC.

It is Austria, Krampusnacht, December 1977. Julian Devonshire, his pregnant wife Kathy, their son Toby and mother in law Celia arrive at the alpine chalet for a family holiday. They are shown around by Klaus who tells the family about the local legend of The Devil of Christmas. All the good children are given gifts by St. Nicholas, and all the bad ones are punished by the demonic Krampus. But who has been good, and who has been bad?