Thursday, 29 January 2015

The James Herbert Award

The publisher Tor UK (an arm of Pan Macmillan) and the family of the late James Herbert have instituted an award for horror novels written in English. The first award winner is be announced in March. Here is the shortlist, and I'm delighted to say that it contains a novel I've actually read. Even better, I gave it a decent review. Phew.


Nick Cutter, THE TROOP (Headline)

Frances Hardinge, CUCKOO SONG (Macmillan)

Andrew Michael Hurley, THE LONEY (Tartarus Press)

Josh Malerman, BIRD BOX (Harper Voyager) 

Kim Newman, AN ENGLISH GHOST STORY (Titan Books)

It's great to see a new author like Andrew Hurley up alongside an old stager like Kim Newman. Best of luck to Andrew and Tartarus. 

The Wanderer, by Timothy J. Jarvis

Imagine a novel that tries to define supernatural horror fiction while re-defining it for a modern sensibility. The nearest example I can think of is The Ceremonies by T.E.D. Klein, a book many considered a qualified failure. Well, a second contender has now emerged in the form of The Wanderer, a remarkable debut from a British author.

The book takes the form of stories within within a framing narrative, which is itself topped and tailed by introductory matter and appendices. The novel proper is purportedly the work of Simon Peterkin, 'a British Library archivist and writer of weird tales'. The Foreword states that Peterkin disappeared in December 2010 in rather odd circumstances. His MS of The Wanderer was found by his editor some months later, apparently abandoned by the author. Thus we begin in the hallowed tradition of the author, Jarvis, posing as the editor of the fictional Peterkin's work. But then comes the twist, as it seems that the actual text of the novel is down to someone else entirely.

And so begins a gory saga spanning many centuries. The story begins when the nameless narrator encounters a Punch and Judy show on the streets of London. This leads him into an underground realm of supernatural horror that almost deranges him, and prompts him to seek out others who've had similar experiences. The group meet in a pub and - in accordance with old-school tradition - tell their stories. But at least one of those in attendance is not what s/he seems...

If this stirs your interest, it should. The premise is at least as much a classic as a cliché, and Jarvis offers some very effective horror tales, all linked by the theme of a descent into a hellish Underworld that leaves innocent victims cruelly transformed. But all this is told within the context of a frame story, typed (yes, typed) by the narrator in the distant future. He has been cursed with apparent immortality as a result of his descent into 'Tartarus'. Unfortunately for him, he has still suffer, and someone knows how to kill him.

Thus we have a novel that manages to combine horror with science fiction, in that it attempts to offer a vision of the broad sweep of future history. Sadly, all the author can come up with is 'we'll have more of the same, then we're buggered' - admittedly a popular take on things, but I found it disappointing. It's also a bit difficult to credit a post-apocalyptic future in which literacy has been forgotten but typewriter ribbons still seem to be available. The passages set in this bleak future, while they have their moments, are often flat and unconvincing.

The book is also beset by info-dumping - the tendency to the throw in everything but the kitchen sink. The author has made his notes, done his research, and he'll be damned if he doesn't include every bit of it. Thus at one point a fake medium decides to make Marat, the French revolutionary, his spirit guide. Fair enough, but we are then give a potted biography of Marat, and no explanation as to how the storyteller (who is supposed to be an uneducated 19th century Glaswegian) came to learn French. Less is definitely more in such cases, especially since in what is ostensibly an account written purely from memory by someone who has lived many lifetimes.

Another difficulty is the author's tendency to use ten words where one would suffice. I can see why he does it - Poe and Lovecraft, who are listed (with many others) as tutelary spirits of this book, were notably wordy. But Bierce and Maupassant, who are also name-checked, were admirably terse. I am, I admit, more of a taker-out than a putter-in when it comes to prose style. But the frequent overloading of the text is, for me, an impediment rather than a powerful effect.

In case I seem too harsh, I must round off by saying that The Wanderer is a remarkable achievement, albeit a flawed one. As one review (quoted in the book) succinctly remarks, reading it is a little like wandering through a library assembled by some insane devotee of fantastic atrocities and excesses.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Hayley is a Ghost!

I belong to a literary society dedicated to the tradition of the ghost story. This society, quite logically, consists of a group of people who meet up to chat about ghost stories, visit places associated with authors like M.R. James, Sheridan Le Fanu etcetera, and lof course get drunk. But every time we check into a venue as A Ghostly Company, or simply tell people that we're into ghost stories, there's one guaranteed reaction. People start telling you their ghost stories, or that the pub is haunted, or that you'll have to pay for the carpets.

There's no doubt that the literary ghost story is a pale, orphan cousin of the 'real thing', the supposedly verified and valid account of a haunting. Millions of people are in no doubt that there are ghosts and that ghosts are, in some respect, the spirits of the dead. I remain very sceptical about such accounts, for a variety of reasons. While discounting the possibility of the so-called paranormal, I think most 'true' accounts of ghosts can be attributed to true believers seeing what they want. As with UFOs, ghosts are usually seen not by level-headed folk who 'never believed in that sort of thing till now', but by those who really, really wanted to see them all along.

Which is why I'm linking this blog to Hayley is a Ghost, the blog of sceptical investigator Hayley M. Stevens. Like me, she's fascinated by the paranormal but described herself as at 'the Scully end' of the belief spectrum. Her blog is a fascinating, frequently updated account of the antics of professional ghost hunters and the UK tabloid (an unholy alliance is ever there was one), and also looks at the unscientific, gadget-heavy approach we've so often see in films. (Had you heard of the Stone Tape 
Projector? I certainly hadn't.)

Anyway, it's a good blog, and I recommend it as a fascinating read.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Haunter (2013)

Stephen King's Groundhog Day - how does that grab you? If you'd rather not be grabbed, this might not be the film for you. But Haunter, which I mentioned last year and recently re-watched, strikes me as one of several rather good recent movies that take the classic ghost story as their point of departure from predictable horror.

In some films the twist is that 'Hey! They were all dead all along!' In this film that's a given. We begin on Sunday morning, when Lisa Johnson (Abigail Breslin) is woken by her little brother telling her, via toy walkie-talkie, that he and Edgar have found the pirate cave and will be spending all morning in it. Come and play! The problem is, every morning is Sunday morning for Lisa. Every day is the same day in 1986, the day before Lisa's sixteenth birthday. The day when she, her little brother, and her parents all died.

What makes the first half hour or so of the film absorbing is Breslin's perfect portrayal of a sulky, Gothy Eighties teenager. (She spends most of the movie in a Siouxsie and the Banshees tee-shirt.) Lisa's insistence that she did  the washing yesterday, her mouthing of the script of the recurring episode of Murder She Wrote, her refusal to touch her mac and cheese all fit perfectly with the teen angst theme. The use of Peter and the Wolf as a recurring motif is also effective (Lisa has clarinet lessons).

Things start to go slightly awry when Lisa begins to hear voices. With help of a toy ouija board she attempts to make contact with whoever is calling. Instead she starts to experience more bizarre and disturbing events as other members of the family awaken from their grim version of the American Dream. Oh, and Edgar turns out to be far from imaginary. What Robert Westall called 'the metabolism' of the haunting is gradually revealed as Lisa, alternately bold and frightened, resourceful and baffled, explores the house she thought she knew. Suffice to say that this is a horror movie, and while not graphically violent there is much to disturb.

Haunter is a film that combines serious themes with playful use of ghost story conventions. Here we have a haunted house seen from the 'inside', a ghost from the past called into the contemporary world, and a take on the afterlife that recalls the best of The Twilight Zone. There is also a hint of Nigel Kneale in the notion that haunted houses are places that somehow trap the dead in recurring cycles of suffering. Suffice to say that - as in The Orphanage, an otherwise very different film - I find myself saying 'Alas! Poor ghost', but applauding the decision to provide an upbeat ending. Any teenager can be cynical.

I noticed that some YouTubers commenting on the trailer below didn't understand the plot. This is surprising, as what could be a confusing situation is spelled out pretty clearly to the observant viewer. Well, I figured it out, so anybody can.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Lands of Dracula

A documentary about Stoker's classic novel was made to commemorate his (death) anniversary in 2012. It's very good, but has yet to be shown on TV. However, the rough cut is on YouTube and you can watch it free of charge! I've decided to upload the third segment, firstly because each bit pretty much can stand alone (if you know the novel), but mainly because it features Tina Rath, PhD, renowned vampire expert, Queen Victoria lookalike, and sometime contributor to ST. Tina appears at around 8'30.

Monday, 19 January 2015

The First Ghost Story Awards Are Looming...

Yes, folks, 2015 is the year in which we will see the first Ghost Story Awards given for best ghost story and best collection/anthology published in 2014. Here's a reminder of the rules.

To vote, you must be a member of A Ghostly Company or a subscriber to the Ghosts & Scholars Newsletter or Supernatural Tales.

You may send your vote by email to; (The fifth character in the email address is a lower case L for Lima, not i or a number 1.)

Your vote must arrive by midnight on February 28th [2015].

You may vote for up to three ghost stories and up to three ghost story collections or anthologies. You do not have to put your votes in any order: they will be treated as of equal weight. You also do not have to give three titles in either category: you may if you prefer give only one or two.

Remember that the story or book must have been first published in English in print and paper format in 2014. The term “ghost story” will be interpreted broadly to refer to work about any supernatural entity and to allow for ambiguity.

You should head your email or letter GHOST STORY AWARDS and follow this format:

Your Name 

List (up to) three ghost story collections or anthologies: Title/Author or Editor/Publisher
(Please do not include other correspondence, although of course this may be sent separately).

State AGC/G&S/ST (to show which qualifies you to vote)

List (up to) three ghost stories: Title/Author/Publisher