Thursday, 31 December 2009

Let the Right One In

It’s been snowing, and as I write this the year is dying. A good time, then, to review a film set in a Swedish winter during the second Cold War.
            Let the Right One In is a remarkable, unpretentious and very satisfying retake on the theme of the vampire as lonely outcast, and the fascination such a creature might exert on a certain kind of human. The twist, as you probably know if you’re into that sort of thing, is that the vampire in this case is a child – girl called Eli who has been ‘twelve for a long time’. While child vampires have been around a while, Eli is – I think – the first leading character of this sort.
            Oskar, Eli’s lonely neighbour, has been twelve for just over nine months. He lives with his divorced mother and sometimes visits his (gay) dad. He is being bullied at school and collects newspaper cuttings about grisly crimes; remember, we are in the late Seventies and there are not yet any handy websites for such lads. A strange killing in which the victim is hung upside down in a wood and drained of blood naturally draws Oskar’s attention. Little does he know that the perpetrator is Eli’s minion. (Yes, like James Mason in Salem’s Lot, only not really.)
            Eli’s factotum is, it turns out, getting a bit old and sloppy. Soon he is cornered, leading to a nasty scene with a jar of something corrosive. Eli is forced to fend for herself among the striking if not conventionally Gothic settings of a snowbound concrete housing estate. It’s interesting that there is no vampire-hunting rigmarole here, no van Helsing figure to sort it all out. I think this is a great improvement, because if there’s one thing a modern vampire story doesn’t need its exposition. And another thing is occult paraphernalia.
            This is a supernatural story, though. We see Eli scale the outside of a building in accepted fashion, and she can fly, though we only see indirect evidence of this. Obliquity alternates with grubby realism, in fact. We don’t see the magic, but we see an awful lot of blood. We also see romance, of a sort, as it’s clear from the start that poor baffled Oskar will latch onto anyone who is kind and takes an interest. When Eli warns him early on that she’s ‘not a girl’ it clearly doesn’t bother him much.
            This is a film of simple plot and striking scenes, with some nice ideas and touches of humour. It also shows a considerable grasp of the horror genre, not just famous vampire flicks. At one point Eli’s attempt to feed on a drunken local is thwarted and the semi-drained woman is ‘vampirised’. Her new status leads to all sorts of bother, not least when a friend’s houseful of moggies attack her. The resulting scene is a clever homage toThe Cat Creature, an obscure movie based on a Robert Bloch novel. Bravo, say I. But it’s not a moment to be savoured by your soft-hearted old auntie.
              I’ll be interested to see what happens when Hollywood (devoid of ideas, as usual) remakes this one. No, on second thoughts, I probably won’t be interested, because I suspect the result will be yet another unbalanced, inartistic mess that will be hard to sit through. There is something Old World about the relationship between Eli and Oskar, and I suspect some jerk will try to turn them into the Bonnie and Clyde of the undead realm. Well, the original is out there, and comes highly recommended.



Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Review of 'Red Christmas'

'Red Christmas' by Jim Steel is an interesting modern-historical ghost story in the latest spiffing issue of ST. Over at the parallel blogiverse of In The Gloaming, it's got the thumbs up! Huzzah! What's more, it's a story about an unusual Christmas gift, so it's seasonal and everything. That's what we editors call planning, y'know.

I don't think Nathaniel Tapley will mind me quoting from his generous review, so here goes:

There isn’t a weak story in this issue. Gary Fry’s ‘Night Watchman’ is suitable M.R. Jamesian; and I enjoyed Jane Jakeman’s nasty little tales. Ray Russell’s nightmarish ‘Company’ (another based on a visit to an elderly person for Christmas) was a highlight, and, although I thought it promised a little more in the way of explanation than it delivered, its waking dream is deliciously disorienting and horrifying. Bill Read (or his character) obviously felt much the same way about his school as I did, and he expresses it wonderfully; and Michael Chislett’s ‘The Coastguard’ has an atmosphere that will hang around the house for days…

Compliments of the Season


Monday, 21 December 2009

Ghosts in Spaaace!

For me, Christmas will always be linked to the first season of The X-Files, which was shown over the winter of 1994-5 in the UK. The first episode (the pilot) was aired by the BBC on 19th September, the final one – Scully finds the alien in a flask – on 9th March. The period between Halloween and Christmas is of course a time for ghost stories. And oddly enough, for a series that will always be associated in the popular imagination with UFO conspiracy claptrap that made no real sense, TXF really delivered the goods on supernatural fiction.

Rewatching Season 1 over the last week or so served to underline what a mixed bag of ideas Chris Carter introduced. The UFO stuff was rather ponderous and silly from the start, while the standalone episodes were often sprightly and great fun. And what a lot of ghosts there are. There’s the murdered company boss in ‘Shadows’, the haunted computer of ‘Ghost in the Machine’, the maybe-spirit of Scully’s old dad in ‘Beyond the Sea’, a reincarnated killer in ‘Lazarus’, the weird healing powers of ‘Miracle Man’, the Manitou lycanthropes of ‘Shapes’, and a reincarnated cop in ‘Born Again’ - it’s a choice buffet of spookitude.


And then there’s ‘Space’. This one is peculiar in that it comes close to combining the story arc of the alien conspiracy tosh with a standalone ghost story. The story begins with the revelation of the so-called Face on Mars, and an interview in which a NASA spokesman points out that it’s produced by chance, just like one of those images of Mother Theresa that turned up in buns a few years ago.


The spokesman is former Gemini astronaut and now mission controller Colonel Marcus Aurelius Belt. I think I can almost forgive Chris Carter his clunky, infodumpish dialogue for that one inspired name – exactly what a former astronaut should be called. Anyway, it turns out that the Face on Mars has not come as any surprise to Belt. We see him in his hotel room later, lying awake in trepidation. Suddenly the Face appears on the bedroom ceiling and hurtles towards him…
Cue the opening credits and that famous sig tune.

Anyway, the plot revolves around the idea that a kind of alien ghost possessed Belt when he was on a Gemini spacewalk in the Sixties, and ever since has been using him to sabotage the space programme. Mulder and Scully do their wise-cracking bit of poking around, after they’re called in by another member of the mission control team. But in the end it’s Marcus Aurelius Belt (I had to type it again) who thwarts the space spook.
Now the only other show I can think of that’s had a space ghost in it is Scooby-Doo. There is something about the high-tech, cutting edge, sci-fi business of space exploration that makes ghosts seem dodgy and rather absurd. Yes, as ‘Space’ shows, it can be done. Not a brilliant episode of TXF, perhaps, but not by any means a poor one.


And why should ghosts somehow cease to work in a story if it’s all about control panels, flashing lights and people counting backwards? Is it because we assume ghosts are inherently things of the past – the historical past? If so this is somewhat lazy thinking, and I admit I’m as prone to it as anyone else.

I’ve just listened to a fairly decent BBC 7 reading of ‘The Signalman’, a story that’s been anthologised so often that merely mentioning it about true ghost story fans can be guaranteed to raise a groan or two. Yet Dickens’ story is all about the white heat of Victorian technology. The telegraph, the electric bell, the railways itself are all new and innovative. They are as far from the conventional Gothic palaver of ruined abbeys and secret panels as you can get.

There are other examples of supernatural tales involving bits of technology. Haunted cars are common. Keith Roberts’ ‘The Scarlet Lady’ and Elizabeth Jane Howard’s ‘Mr Wrong’ are good and very different examples. Then there are planes. Robert Westall’s Wellington bomber in ‘Blackham’s Wimpey’ is the best ghostly aviation story I’ve read. Perhaps you know of some other good ones.


But ships are the ultimate hi-tech haunt. We can now view a stately galleon or a Napoleonic frigate as a quaint old thing, forgetting that all sailing ships were finely crafted instruments of war and trade. To people who’d never seen a ship – such as some Pacific islanders – they were so large as to be almost incomprehensible at first. But of course sailors were always superstitious, and the sea has at least as many legends as the land. So the ghost ships sail on.

If we ever push out into space as Europeans once set sail for new worlds on earth, with we take our ghosts with us? Or will we find ghosts waiting? One Ray Bradbury story (whose title eludes me) concerns an earthman who lands on an asteroid that – rather improbably – has a breathable atmosphere. He settles down to wait for rescue, but then finds himself possessed by the spirits of long-dead warriors who perished ages ago amid general mayhem. (Interestingly, John Carpenter used this same idea in his disappointing film Ghosts of Mars – no idea if Bradbury got a credit or a percentage.)

Well, Bradbury was always a bit of a law unto himself. Futuristic settings and ghosts don’t present an appealing combination to most authors, and perhaps that’s just as well. Mixing your genres is rather like mixing your drinks – you can only get away with it so often because you have a nasty mishap. Something to remember over the Yuletide break!

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Spookery and Rudery for the Festive Season!

I have received an electronic mail communication from Mr Tapley, which I will copy in full...

Hi David,

The In The Gloaming Christmas Special went up this afternoon, and it's here: http://bit.ly/5V9in8 It's a festive ghost story with a terrifying twist. And some jokes about dildoes...

Hope you enjoy it,

N

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Festive Frights, Gorblimey

Those loveable Cockney Sparrers at One Eye Grey have come up with some scary podcasts, all on a London theme. Murder, mayhem, madness, mince pies - that's how it's done round our house, and I trust that's also the case for you, too, dear listener. I'm now going to try and embed this PodcastMachine in my blog, like an idiot.

Update: it didn't work. Blogger seems very hostile to embedding podcasts. Oh well.

Thursday, 10 December 2009

In which I am praised

Fanzine Fanatique, a Lancastrian publication, has said very nice things about ST for some years now. The autumn 09 issue is particularly fulsome so - overcoming my natural modesty - I thought I'd quote it in full.

'Well, Steve Jones, Ellen Datlow and Charles Black are keeping the short story alive commercially, but their source material invariably comes from semi-prozines such as this, and it's quality throughout, with a prize for the best story as determined by the readers. Indeed, much as I enjoy those giant anthologies, zines such as ST are not limited to putting 'names' on their covers in order to sell. I've certainly had to endure some trash from established writers (I'll not name names) in those pro anthologies, which is why ST is such a joy. Included also some book reviews. There's a reappraisal of the work of forgotten author Gerald Kersh. I recall the name but...'

Nice, eh? I think we've all had that nasty sinking feeling when we realise that a big-name author has contributed something he tossed off (so to speak) a few years ago and has never placed, or hastily cobbled something together that reads like an inferior version of his early, classic stuff. The biggest 'name' I've published is Joel Lane, and every one of his ST stories has been excellent.

Well, it's nice to have a bit of praise.

If you'd like a sample copy of Fanzine Fanatique, send:
2 stamps in the UK
or 2 IRCs, or 1 US dollar if not in the UK.

Write to:

Keith & Rosemary Walker
6 Vine St
Greaves
Lancaster
L41 4UF

Incidentally, FF is the longest running fanzine and small press reviewzine in the world - it has been published continuously since June 1972. Blimey.

What was number one in the UK in June, 1972? Well, there were two rather distinctive numbers...



Then, by way of contrast...



In terms of supernatural movies, there was of course Dracula 1972 AD, which I recall was rubbish (I may be wrong). However, there was also this:

Friday, 4 December 2009

Audio Fun

This blog isn't an interesting as it could be. I'm well aware that people who stop by on occasion don't always find it's been updated, and even if it has I've often got nothing much to say but 'Ooh, I'm listening to the wireless'. So I'm throwing open the comments section for readers to suggest things I could do. Nice ones, please.

One thought that occurred to me some time ago is this: would you like to hear my dulcet tones, or those of other folk, actually reading extracts from the stories? Or perhaps even reading some shorter stories complete (after they're published in ST, and of course with the author's permission)?

If so, there's a problem. It seems blogger can't sustain simple MP3 files for some reason. Unless you know different? Is there a way to get an audio file here without making it part of a video, which seems a bit mad?

Over to you, gentle reader.


Tuesday, 1 December 2009

A Stir of Echoes

Richard Matheson's early novel A Stir of Echoes is about a regular guy who, after being hypnotised at a party, finds he can apparently read minds. Or is it that simple? It's a clever novel that, with typical Matheson precision, builds from one strange incident to another. I recently read the novel and, by coincidence, it's now being serialised on BBC 7. Not a bad reading, though it sounds somewhat abridged.


Thursday, 26 November 2009

Wetwang?

'Not far to the east of York lies an empty stretch of country known as the Wolds; a region of tiny hamlets, distant farms and meagre population. Yet, within living memory, it was a scene of bustling enterprise. I speak of the deserted railway tracks once connecting with the Great North Eastern Railway. A tiled mural depicting the network prior to nationalisation adorns to this day the concourse at York Station, epitaph to the glory of the Railway Age, grim reminder of the depredations of Dr Beeching.
The Malton-Driffield Railway wove its way through North Grimston, Wharram, Fimber, Sledmere, Wetwang, Garton-on-the-Wolds. It served the long desolate chalk quarries of Wharram and Burdale, supplying the chemical industry of Teesside. During the Second World War the line transported evacuees to country estates and troops to training camps; once carrying General de Gaulle on a visit to French soldiers billeted at Malton. The passage in 1948 of the Royal Train, hauled by ‘Irish Elegance’, en route to the Sykes of Sledmere House, proved, alas, its swan song: soon it had been relegated to goods, axed in 1958—though its value was loudly trumpeted in the great snowfall of 1957 when it was the only link for seven long, hard weeks. Today much of the line has been enclosed by farms, sections made into footpaths and large portions reclaimed by rampant nature. Hidden in this wilderness, not far from the ruins of the old Wharram station, can be found the sealed entrance to Burdale Tunnel.'

  
From 'The Tunnel' by Peter Bell (ST17, due out next summer)

  





Wednesday, 25 November 2009

A Fancy Room (but is it en suite?)

'The room was huge. All around the walls stood tall black and silver candelabra, as graceful as the antlers of stags, bearing stands of flaming candles. Looking down the room, she saw a vast stove covered in gold and black tiles that rose to the ceiling. Long couches stood around it, their arms terminating in carved animals. Even from here, she could see some grinning faces, a monkey mouth opening wide  to expose the teeth, a roaring lion with a gilded mane. To these creatures also, the unstable candlelight gave disturbing impressions of movement, too quick to catch, registering on the eye as barely-seen glimpses, the effect enhanced by flecks of  ivory and mother-of pearl which inlaid their gleaming milky eyes. Along the backs of the couches were carved intertwined lizard-like creatures: she had seen these forms before, and was trying to recall them to her memory when she happened to look up and saw one painted in gilt and scarlet which seemed suspended almost above her.'
From 'The Demon Lover' by Jane Jakeman (earmarked for ST18, Winter 2010)



All rather sumptuous, isn't it? Better than Butlins, certainly. But we all know that when a lady - especially a nice British lady tourist - finds herself in a fancy foreign bedchamber, nothing good can come of it. You can find out more about Jane Jakeman and order her books here


The Glamour of the Snow

I was re-reading this Blackwood story the other week, and it struck me that it's a perfect example of the author's greatest strengths and weaknesses. If you don't know it, it's here.

The plot is simple. An Englishman called Hibbert who's a bit of a loner, and sensitive to nature in that way Blackwood's characters often are, goes to an Alpine ski resort. He enjoys himself, but always feels a certain detachment both from his fellow skiers and skaters, and the locals.

His nature was too “multiple” to subscribe to the set of shibboleths of any one class. And, since all liked him, and felt that somehow he seemed outside of them—spectator, looker-on—all sought to claim him.

Typical outsider, of a sort very familiar from many ghostly tales. But it's fair to say that Blackwood set the template, here. M.R. James' characters are often loners, too, but they sometimes seem a little dates in their bachelor-scholar status. Blackwood's protagonists seem more complex and 'modern', in some ways.

But to return to TGotS. Hibbert goes skating late at night - another manifestation of his oddball status - and encounters a lovely young lady. This is a clever bit, as the girl is obviously muffled up with gloves, scarves etcetera, so Hibbert doesn't know what she looks like and doesn't touch her hand as they skate. She is of course an entrancing creature:

And she was delicious to skate with —supple, sure, and light, fast as a man yet with the freedom of a child, sinuous and steady at the same time. Her flexibility made him wonder, and when he asked where she had learned she murmured —-he caught the breath against his ear and recalled later that it was singularly cold—that she could hardly tell, for she had been accustomed to the ice ever since she could remember.

I think we all know where this is going. Blackwood as usual deluges us with long sentences, dashes all over the place, and a lot of numinous and sometimes well-crafted prose about the wonders of nature. I can take it or leave it. It's like sinking into a deep, overstuffed comfy chair then finding that want to get up and get a drink. Then, having sunk down again, you want to turn the wireless off. And so on. After a while you begin to wish for something a little more utilitarian.

But some passages remain powerful. When Hibbert sneaks out for a rendezvous at midnight, the beauty of the winter mountains is very well evoked.

“Give me your hand,” he cried, “I’m coming . . . !”

“A little farther on, a little higher,” came her delicious answer. “Here it is too near the village—and the church.”

And the words seemed wholly right and natural; he did not dream of questioning them; he understood that, with this little touch of civilisation in sight, the familiarity he suggested was impossible. Once out upon the open mountains, ’mid the freedom of huge slopes and towering peaks, the stars and moon to witness and the wilderness of snow to watch, they could taste an innocence of happy intercourse free from the dead conventions that imprison literal minds.


Fortunately there are some literal minds about the place to rescue Hibbert when the 'glamour' of the snow - in the old fashioned sense of the term - nearly does for him.

Throughout the story there is a sense of wonder, but never one of menace. The stranger who tempts Hibbert to what may be his death is not, we feel, evil. She is presumably some kind of spirit of nature, a sort of dryad of the snows, perhaps seeking a mate. The only suggestion of something dodgy is when she shows an aversion to church bells. But Blackwood (who had a horrendous Christian upbringing) never really puts his heart into the old 'religion good, pagan bad' dichotomy. Anyone who's read 'Ancient Sorceries' or even 'Secret Worship', in which a fallen angel appears, might struggle to find a sense of spiritual evil.

So, Algernon Blackwood - not a horror writer as such. But his best stories, 'The Wendigo' and 'The Willows', are all the better for being devoid of conventional gimmickry and ideas. It's a pity but not surprising that, Blackwood having chosen a difficult path to travel, most of us are unable to accompany him very far into the woods.


Tuesday, 24 November 2009

Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

Blimey, I seem to have lost the year 2009, or a substantial part of it. Never mind, my fiendish plans for 2010 are well under way. 


First up, the contents of ST17. This is list is highly provisional, but I thought you might like to have a peep.



'The Tunnel' - Peter Bell


'Mr Nousel's Mirror' - Michael Keyton


T'he Dress' - Elizabeth Brown 


'13 Nassau St' - Martin Hayes


'Cabin D' - Ian Rogers


'The Language of the Nameless Region' - Richard Gavin 


'Lessons' - Katherine M. Haynes


This list is interesting (to me at least) because it contains so many new names. Not that I think ST has become in any way tired, I just happen to have been getting a lot of submissions from new writers (new to me, that is). This is a good thing.

There's an inevitable 'churning' effect in publishing a tiny little magazine as an amateur editor. A really good writer will stop off along the way to greater things - like getting paid - and may hang around for a year or two. Some writers who are successful, in the sense that their work appears in books, will stick with ST in part because they like it, and perhaps also because it has a reasonable reputation. Indeed some writers who are already established have been known to drop by - Joel Lane, for instance.

Anyway, ST17 does contain two 'old stagers' - my sub-editor Katherine, who appeared in the first issue, and Peter Bell. Katherine's story owes something to Robert Aickman's 'The inner Room', in my humble opinion, and is about nasty girls. Or grrrrrrls. Peter's story is, as the title hints, tunnel-based. It's about a disused railway line, in fact. Always a good central premise for a ghost story, I think. It's also couched in fairly traditional form, as a series of diary extracts and other bits of research.

The other authors are a diverse bunch. Elizabeth Brown's 'The Dress' is a truly weird tale, combining fashion with amnesia to confuse me and possibly the reader - but, I think, to interesting ends. 'Mr Nousel's Mirror' is an elegant supernatural fantasy, as is '13 Nassau St', with its Dublin setting. 'Cabin D' by Canadian author Ian Rogers is slightly redolent of the young Stephen King and indeed Rod Serling. With Richard Gavin I've finally got someone doing an almost-Lovecraftian fantasy-horror, combining a modern setting with a timeless, strange feel.

I can't really write any more about these stories because I'm not a complete idiot and don't want to give all the good bits away. But I can reveal some of the title images, which are bit suggestive, oo-er.


















Monday, 23 November 2009

The Haunted Pen of Richard Matheson

No, he doesn't really have a haunted pen, or at least doesn't admit to it. But there's a good interview with the celebrated author here. I recently read his lesser-known supernatural novel A Stir of Echoes. Recommended. But, unlike Matheson's other early books, ASoE doesn't lend itself to film or TV because it is about a man's internal and highly subjective supernatural experiences.

There's also a good interview with RM in the Dark Dreamers series:

Wrong Again

My previous post on this topic was clearly incorrect.

THE new president of the European Union is a Catholic German vampire who craves the blood of your children, experts warned last night. 

As the unelected leaders of Europe chose the unelected Belgian prime minister to be your unelected president, vampirologists revealed Herman Van Rompuy's true identity as a 486 year-old blood-sucking monster of the night.

Read the full story here.

I Googled 'Belgian vampire' to find a pic and got this.


Sunday, 22 November 2009

Oooh! I'll be checking this out...


Dear David,

I'm a subscriber to your Supernatural Tales blog, and thought you might be interested in this:

We've just made the first in a monthly series of horror-comedy audio plays starring some of Britain's best young comics, and Celebrity Love Islander, and Beppe from Eastenders, Michael Greco.

Called In the Gloaming: Creepy Tales of Now, they are a chilling and darkly comic look at modern life, and are available as a free podcast. The first episode, Dead Skinny, is out now, and has received great reviews from horror masters like Ramsey Campbell, and more than 1,000 downloads. It is available here: http://bit.ly/1uP2Xq

There is more information at our website ( http://inthegloamingpodcasts.wordpress.com ) and I'd be happy to answer any questions. The next episode is out on Friday 27th November...

Best of luck with everything, and I hope you enjoy the podcast!

Yours,

Nathaniel Tapley
--
Twitter: InTheGloaming

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Vampires Can't Be Good Catholics




The Vatican has decided that, on balance, all things considered, it's against vampires. Damn. I had a tenner at Ladbrokes that said the Pope would, in his Christmas message, say that demon-possessed bloodsucking corpses in cloaks were more in accord with the tenets of the Council of Nicaea than, say, Methodists. (Thought I was going to type Muslims there, didn't you? So did I, but you've got to be careful these days.)

Anyway, the Pope's propagandists say the Twilight series of books by Stephenie Meyer are a Bad Thing, as is the series of popular feature films currently being produced to - if you read the Daily Mail - DEPRAVE OUR TEENAGE DAUGHTERS! For the Daily Mail, anything that is new and popular must deprave somebody, and if they can get a picture of a nubile young lady in the story, badda bing!

But I digress. This is what the bead-jigglers think, allegedly:

According to the Daily Mail Monsignor Franco Perazzolo, of the Pontifical Council of Culture, said: "Men and women are transformed with horrible masks and it is once again that age-old trick or ideal formula of using extremes to make an impact at the box office.

"This film is nothing more than a moral vacuum with a deviant message and as such should be of concern."

The Mail added that a spokespriest said the film gives a "mixture of excesses aimed at young people and gives a heavy esoteric element."


No, I have no idea what 'gives a heavy esoteric element' means. I very much doubt whether Ms Meyer's popular books contain scenes in which people offer each other containers of transuranic isotopes. That would be a bit of a sci-fi twist, I admit, but rather spoil the Gothic ambience.

As the Register points out, the Vatican needs to get its ducks in a row on supernatural evil, because it will keep chopping and changing in a most un-Catholic way.

The Vatican had long condemned the Harry Potter series, claiming it would corrupt impressionable young children and turn them onto the occult, or at least onto the English boarding school system. Then, it turned around and praised the film version of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince for its sharp delineation of good and evil.

Likewise, the Vatican had a long-running downer on Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code - understandable perhaps given its rather anti-Vatican stance. Then, earlier this year, it faint-praisedly damned Angels and Demons as "quite harmless".


Flip-flopping on works of fiction, eh? And I seem to recall Galileo got an apology a few years back. Dear me. You can't rely on anyone these days.

Re: Twilight, I haven't read it, but Karen at work (who's thirtysomething) is reading the first book and loving it. I suspect this is because its girly slushy gushy kissy kissy heaving bosomy stuff. Or I would like to believe that it is. I have a rich inner life.

But let's consider this Catholics vs. Vampires thing. Isn't there a case to be made for vampires to be a heretical Catholic sect? Consider the evidence.

Vampires emerged in medieval Europe (like the Hussites and Cathars).

They dress stylishly, in flowing clothes, not unlike clergy.

They slake their various lusts on nubile young people - no further comment necessary.

They live in vast, stone edifices and haunt graveyards (I'm still talking about vampires).

Then there's the weirder stuff.  Vampires are immortal, and of course one of the main selling points of Catholicism is that it offers you immortality (post-death) if you sign up. Blood - vampires are created by sharing blood, and Catholic immortality is (I'm told) something to do with blood.

Gosh, it's almost as if this vampire stuff was a pop-culture critique of the crazy doctrines of mass religion.

And now, a funny video.

The Sound of the Borderland

I seem to be banging the drum long and loud for BBC 7 these days. So be it. I've sort of given up on the telly - I can do without it, so I do. Radio I can listen to while I think, type, doze, eat crisps, sew on a button, and still miss nothing. And BBC 7 does usually have a good spooky or weird tale on the go.

One very good reading is of William Hope Hodgson's odd, hard-to-define novel The House on the Borderland. I've never been quite sure of Hodgson. He has many admirers and his best work is powerful. But his style is starchy and his ideas are often maddeningly vague. THotB is probably his most accessible book. The central idea - of a strange house besieged by weird 'swine things' - really stays with you, as does the rather Wellsian cosmic reverie of the unreliable narrator.

Oh, and did I mention this reading is by Jim Norton? Yes, Bishop Brennan himself. Wonderful voice.


Thursday, 19 November 2009

They're Still At It

Those crazy guys at the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society have been filming a new movie for, well, strange aeons and a bit. But they're getting there, and I for one look forward to the finished product. You can read their production blog here. And this is the trailer, which I posted a long time ago. Still good.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Badlands

I've been reading a short novel by Mike Chislett. It's good. Should I publish it as a Supernatural Tales special issue? How many people reading this would buy a long story by Mike? I suspect quite a few people would be happy to stump up around a tenner, but I'd like a bit of feedback.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Green Man

Pagan survival? Mediaeval joke? Good or evil or just plain there? Whatever the truth behind the Green Man, he is present in hundreds of English churches. And there's a song about him by one of my fave bands....

Saturday, 24 October 2009

Casting the Fun Runes

This young feller-me-lad from Down Under has probably never heard of M.R. James. But...

Friday, 23 October 2009

The Eye (original Hong Kong version)

When it comes to modern supernatural horror movies, East Asia has it over Hollywood. Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and - more recently - Thailand have all produced memorable examples of the ghostly film genre. One of my favourites is The Eye, which was made by the Pang brothers. It's a cracking story well told, and it's heart is in the right place. Good for Halloween - or any dark night. It's not visceral or especially disturbing, just spooky enough to keep you interested and complex enough to keep you guessing. There's a great twist, too. This scene isn't it...


Halloween Movies!

If you're capable of renting a DVD for next Saturday, I have some suggestions. Do you? Let me know via this blogulatory device what you think a good Halloween movie would be. I'm going to get you started with a great favourite of mine, which remains rather obscure...

Dracula - Pages from a Virgin's Diary (2002) 75 mins, Tartan DVD




There have been so many versions of Dracula that it's surprising to find a new and rather 'arty' production to be one of the best. I rented it out of curiosity and then bought it in delight. The film is based on a work by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, but don't be put off by the B word - the film is essentially a silent movie with dance and music (apparently it's Mahler - I'm a bit philistine about this classical stuff). There are also some (often very funny) intertitles. (FLESHPOTS!) But we all know the story and the characters, don't we? So we can sit back and enjoy the virtuosity of the performers.

The basic plot is that of the play, rather than the novel. The action begins in Whitby, at Lucy's home and the neighbouring asylum where good ol' Renfield is depleting the invertebrate population. Lucy's suitors are introduced, as is Dracula, played by the Chinese dancer Wei-Qiang Zhang. Yes, there's a parable about immigrants stealing our women (and our money!) but it's all good murky fun. And, just as importantly, Stoker's basic plot is all here, complete with some of the barmier bits - insanely reckless blood transfusion, anyone?

The female characters, Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker, are foregrounded to allow full rein to the principals, Tara Birtwhistle and CindyMarie Small. As the 'naughty' Lucy, Tara Birtwhistle is convincingly whimsical, seductive and - after she is 'turned' - predatory. Cindy Marie Small has the tougher job as goody-goody Mina, but Maddin throws a few kinks into the plot that are mostly for her benefit, or so it seemed to me.

This is a truly Gothic rendition of Dracula, with girls in peril from dark forces and menfolk rallying round to help. In the case of Lucy, the chaps are too late, and the 'Bloofer Lady' has to come to a sticky, stabby, decapitatory end. In the case of Mina, things become a little complicated. But suffice to say that love triumphs and all is well, more or less. Along the way are some wonderful moments, not least when the company get together for set pieces such as Lucy's funeral.

There is a superb supporting cast, notably David Moroni as a very convincing (and possibly transvestite) Van Helsing, and some wonderful sets. The lighting and camera work are inspired. There are also some fine DVD extras, notably director Guy Maddin's short 'The Heart of the World', which delivers a six minute burst of German Expressionist cinema, or something.

Anyway, cop a load of this. Here's the bit where I get to perv Lucy has a bad night.

An American Werewolf in London

This film has just gone on cinema release, apparently - a good move for Halloween. Radio 4 today (or yesterday) featured a good - if short - interview with director John Landis. It's here. One thing I learned - the silver bullet that an kill a werewolf? It was inserted into the legend simply because, while he was working on a script, writer Curt Siodmak happened to be listening to the Lone Ranger radio serial...

Oh, and in AAWIL, I'd totally overlooked Rik Mayall in this scene, overshadowed as he is by Brian Glover.

 

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus

Review of Terry Gilliam's latest opus have been generally thumbs-down. Notable exceptions include the genre magazine SFX, which was quite thumbs-uppish about it all. And I suspect this is part of the problem. While Gilliam isn't a sci-fi or fantasy director as such, he does have a huge following among us nerds.

The kind of people who can give a detailed synopsis of many Doctor Who stories or Star Trek episodes also tend to like Gilliam. This is both his glory and his curse, I suspect. The serious, arty film crowd don't quite trust Gilliam, for all his top-notch credentials. And perhaps they are right, as he doesn't seem to like them very much. In interviews he has rightly dismissed most CGI movies as boring and gimmicky, and questioned the prevailing habit of simply cobbling together bits of all your favourite movies in a sterile overblown homage. Taxi for Mr Tarantino.

Anyway, what's it all about? One thing everyone knows is that Heath Ledger died in the making of the movie and was cunningly replaced by Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp and Jude Law. The trick works because the Imaginarium of the title is a kind of magic mirror. If people plunge into this mirror Dr Parnassus - played by the ever-reliable Christopher Plummer - lets them live in a world of their own imagination. But when things go wrong, a person's face can change thanks to a trip through the mirror. Well, I found it credible within the bounds of the film's wacky dream logic.

Indeed, it is more of a dream than a plot. There is a plot, involving Mr Nick (Tom Waits) making a series of wagers with Parnassus. When P. wins a bet he gets benefits like, say, immortality and a chance to woo a lovely lady. When he loses, though, he has problems - like sacrificing his beloved daughter Valentina (Lily Cole, rather lovely and acting well) to Mr Nick. For Mr Nick is... Tom Waits. And the Devil, obviously. Same difference. Anyway, the girl has to be handed over on her 16th birthday, which is rapidly approaching when the film begins.

The situation is complicated when the Parnassus travelling-show gang rescue Tony Shepherd, Ledger's character, who is found hanging under London bridge. (Re: being hanged, Tony has a bit for a trick up his sleeve - or rather, down his gullet.) Tony has lost his memory, and at first it seems he may be an innocent victim of nasty gangsters. But as the plot unfolds we find out more and... I'm not telling. Nor am I revealing the details of Mr Nick's final bet with Parnassus.

Those who felt the film was all show and bluster but no real thought might need to watch it a few times. I suspect I missed a great deal. It's certainly about love, morality, power, and the need to constrain our imaginations lest we be consumed by crass yearnings. Scenes in which drunken, stupid or selfish people get involved with Dr P's sideshow are telling. Firstly, do people want 'old-fashioned entertainment'? That's what the film offers, after all. (No CGI here.) Secondly, how responsible are we for the sufferings of others? Tony is rescued by strangers, but does not repay them with good deeds, though at first he seems to.

And Parnassus - well, there's a name that Gilliam may have chosen for the sound. But the Greek mountain of that name was sacred to Apollo and the Muses. This is a film about art as a sacred trust, a gift of the gods, as something that can raise us to godlike status through contemplating it. Oh, and it's also quite funny a lot of the time.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Voting has already begun

Blimey, I've only just finished sending out ST16 this morning and already I've received two votes for best story. Not for the same story, either. So far comments about the mag have been very positive. Reader 'R' of Chester remarks:

'... many thanks for ST 16, which contains much to enjoy. I liked pretty much all the stories, although I WOULD have been hard put to choose my favourite between Tina Rath's and Jane Jakeman's ("Adoptagrave"). I say WOULD because the decision was more or less taken out of my hands when I read Mike Chislett's tale. It's easily the best story in the issue and one of the best I've read anywhere in a while. I suspect from its placing at the end of the fiction part of ST that you feel the same. Mike is such an original talent (...) Oddly enough, "The Coast Guard" in its own way combines what I like about Tina's and Jane's tales - the slightly spooky whimsicality of the first, and the downright scariness of the second.'

What do you think, avid readers? If the mysterious 'R' (who got her review copy nice and early) correct in her assessment? If you don't tell me what you think, I won't know. And that's logic.

Re: postal problems. All the international copies went out last week and should be arriving soon. Certainly none should be delayed by any strikes in poor old Blighty. Most of the domestic subscribers' copies went mid-week. The last few went today, Monday. They should be arriving in a couple of days or have already arrived. If any subscriber reading this thinks their copy may have gone astray, give it a week or so then get in touch. You just never know...

Now a quick reminder why I'm doing all this. Because when I was a tiny boy I read the works of Mr Poe, and never quite got him out of my system. Did you know there was a 'chamber musical'? Neither did I.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Winter Ghosts

A part of my rather odd day job is reviewing audio books. One of the latest releases I managed to listen to over the weekend was The Winter Ghosts by Kate Mosse. The unabridged reading is by Julian Rhind-Tutt, the floppy-haired one from Green Wing. It runs to 5 CDs and makes for quite an absorbing listen.


This is my first encounter with Ms Mosse, but I'm informed that all of her books so far focus on France and its medieval history. The 'official' time period of the narrative, however, is between the two great wars of the last century.

Freddie Watson's life stalled when his beloved older brother George died on the Somme in 1916. Freddie suffered a nervous breakdown, began to see George's 'ghost', and found himself unable to work or indeed do anything much. (He is one of those privately wealthy individuals who don't have to work - a standard 'between the wars' protagonist, in fact.)

The first chapter of TWG is a neat exercise in foreshadowing. Freddie visits a French antiquarian bookseller whose shop window - along with various classics - also have volumes of ghost stories by M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood and J. Sheridan Le Fanu. I'm not sure exactly where the latter fits in - possibly in the account of small-town life in a remote village, and especially the quaint inn. But James and Blackwood are the tutelary spirits of this novel. I wonder how many of Mosse's readers have even heard of them, though?

If you recall James' account of St Bertrand de Comminges in 'Canon Alberic's Scrap-book' you will know the setting - a fairly obscure corner of France, in the shadow of the Pyrenees. If you've read Blackwood's 'Ancient Sorceries' you will know what is going on almost as soon as the main plot gets under way. The latter really provides Mosse with her plot, as Freddie Watson is essentially Arthur Vezin with a twist. Vezin, you may recall, had an ancestral tie to those ancient sorceries. Freddie has no blood connection, but instead contacts the winter ghosts of the title through a shared sense of abandonment  Loneliness calls to loneliness. In this case, Fabrissa -a beautiful young woman - calls to Freddie, taking him by the hand and leading him into a world of terror, persecution and flight.

I'm not quite sure if the novel fits together, well-written though it is. It seems Mosse often uses a 'time-twisting' approach that, presumably, her readers are familiar with. But I'm not at all sure if the general reader is supposed to 'get' the ghost story aspect early on, or be surprised what is essentially a series of non-twists. But never mind, there's much to enjoy here. The winter landscape is beautifully evoked and Freddie - who could have been very wearying company in the wrong hands - is a likeable character. And the novel's climactic scenes are powerful, if rather long delayed.

For all that it's enjoyable for most of its length, TWG proves yet again how hard it is to write a ghost novel. The very term sits awkwardly on the page (or screen) and I think it's clunky for a reason. A good ghost story is naturally brief and focuses on one incident involving a small number of people. TWG sprawls more than a bit and at times you feel you are getting research notes thrown at you as ballast, fascinating though the research may have been. But, as the nights draw in and frosty mornings become commonplace, this might just be the right book to curl up with for a week or so.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

Supernatural Tales 16 is alive and well...

I am posting magazines out now. I will continue to do so while I have breath in my wizened frame. Contributors' copies may already have arrived, I'm that efficient.

My aim is to have the mag to everyone before Hallowe'en. Need I say why? But I am compelled by family emergency to go away this weekend and there may be a postal strike by the end of next week! Will I get them all posted out in time? Stay tuned to this channel. But don't expect any more blog posts for a while because of the 'going away' thing.

The end. Except for these edited highlights from the forthcoming ST movie:

 

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Congratulations to the Cardinal

Peterborough's leading poet, Cardinal Cox, has only gone and won the John Clare Trust Poetry Prize! He was awarded this fabulous prize on National Poetry Day, last Thursday. There's even a press release that runs:

'The Cardinal has been having his verse published in the small-press for around twenty-five years. He was the chair of Peterborough SF Club through the nineteen-nineties. He was the Poet Laureate of Peterborough for 2003 and was Poet-in-Residence at Broadway Cemetery, also in Peterborough, from 2005 until 2008. He has twice been a runner-up in the Data Dump Award for Best British Published SF Poem and this year his pamphlets of his work included on given away at the steampunk convivial The Asylum held in Lincoln.

The John Clare Trust manages the John Clare Cottage in Helpston and Cardinal Cox intends to use his year (until the final of the next competition) as a Poetry Ambassador for them.'

Congratulations to the Cardinal. The Nobel beckons...

And here's a bit of Mr Clare:

The Autumn's come again,
And the clouds descend in rain,
And the leaves are fast falling in the wood;
The Summer's voice is still,
Save the clacking of the mill
And the lowly-muttered thunder of the flood.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Le Fanu's 'Ghost of a Hand'



The BBC is running some Classic Tales of Horror this week. Among the authors are Kipling ('My Own True Ghost Story'), E.F. Benson ('Caterpillars') and Le Fanu. The latter crops up now and again on BBC 7. A rather good dramatisation of Uncle Silas has been run a couple of times at least.

'Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand' is not first-rate Le Fanu, but does have his trademark air of oddity coupled with authenticity. It's not clear what the hand is about, or why the house might be haunted. I'm also not clear whether we are supposed to regard the hand as truly supernatural, or might it be he work of a very mortal troublemaker?

*Forgot to add, Friday's story is 'The Mezzotint', read by Robin Bailey.

Wot Larks, Pip


Dearie me. The postal workers union has decided to hold a strike, in addition to the unofficial strikes that have already undermined the system. This is great fun, because the printer has just informed me that ST16 is winging its way to me right now. So, what do I do? Wait for the strike(s) to blow over, if they do? Post stuff out before the strike(s) and hope for the best? I'll have to ponder this one. If a lot of copies go astray I won't be able to replace them all, as I just don't have that many spares - can't afford 'em. But I don't want to lose readers. I suppose I could guarantee that people in the Tyneside area received their copies by hand delivering them. I have an A to Z.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Max Faversham - Demon Puncher

The wacky comedy gang The Penny Dreadfuls do amusing stuff based around Victorian melodrama - a bit like Ripping Yarns for the 21st century. Anyway, their stories of the Brothers Faversham, each of whom has a special talent, continues with Maximilian, Victorian England's greatest writer of horror stories. The extracts from Max's books are hilarious, as are the details of Max's disastrous life. There's also a reference to owls, so be warned if you're phobic.


More Penny Dreadfuls at their site here.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

More Coffin Nails

I've been a good boy and read some more stories from John L. Probert's excellent collection Coffin Nails. 'The Ossuary' is a variation on that old (and rightly much-used) theme of 'someone visits a somewhat spooky place'. The idea of a house full of decoratively carved human bones is weird enough, and it's a tribute to the author's imagination that he manages to make the finale of his story as strange as its setting.

That's followed by 'Final Act', with its combined themes of the spooky girlfriend - a very popular one, again - and love that endures beyond the grave. There's also a nod to a horror classic. One flaw, for me, is a central incident that leaves a character seriously disabled. It is based on a real-life event, but that is perhaps the problem - it doesn't quite fit and seems less probable, somehow, than the supernatural stuff.

'Between the Pipes' is very strange indeed. The central theme of someone using an evil 'thing' for selfish gain, only to have it backfire on them, if again familiar from M.R. James, among others, but again there are subtle and rather moving variations on the theme.

'The Sacrifices We Make' is a very short story indeed - a mere four pages. It takes a lot of skill to make a short-short memorable, and this one is unusual enough to stick in the mind. Again, though, there's a twist near the end that slightly spoils it, for me at least.

So, pretty good thus far. The nights are drawing in as I prepare to tackle the last few stories. Have the scariest been left till last? Oo-er.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

The Swan River Press

If I can work this infernal engine there should be an extra link over to the right, sending you to The Swan River Press. If you can't see it or indeed anything else on this site please let me know. I am using a new editing gizmo and am a bit worried that things may be going out of what. Anyway, there it is. Possibly.

Friday, 2 October 2009

My Aunt Margaret's Adventure

Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu produced some of the best supernatural stories of the Victorian era. For my money 'Carmilla' is his best, but it is run pretty close by 'Green Tea', 'The Familiar' and 'Schalcken the Painter'. Le Fanu's lesser tales have - to some extent - ridden along on the coattails of these superb efforts. The same might be said of the lesser novels, which might not be available if it weren't for Uncle Silas. And of course there was the M.R. James' edited collection, Madame Crowl's Ghost, which must have brought thousands of new readers to Le Fanu.

James collected stories that were (in his opinion) penned by Le Fanu but published anonymously. He specifically excluded 'My Aunt Margaret's Adventure' because - while Gothic enough - it doesn't have a ghostly theme. It is, however, a fairly Gothic tale of lost travellers, a spooky inn, and sinister doings at night. Brian J. Showers at Swan River Press is to be complimented for putting this rarity within the reach of Le Fanu fans and M.R. James hyper-completists.

I read this short-ish story on a short-ish train journey of about half an hour, and found it quite absorbing. Le Fanu, to modern readers, may seem to take his time, but by mid-Victorian standards he was a rather economical writer, and a master of the telling detail. In this case we are given abundant hints that Something Nasty is going to happen to poor old Aunt Margaret, and sure enough, it does. It's not exactly a whodunnit, though, unless one accepts that the Industrial Revolution is the culprit.

There are some fine moments, and as usual Le Fanu manages to combine the comical, realistic detail with some genuine chills. It's a gift that M.R. James clearly admired and set out to emulate in his own work. Much of the story deals with commonplace things - an old lady and her companion set out to retrieve some of the former's rent from a defaulting shopkeeper. Their driver is a bit of an old layabout who doesn't really know the way. They get lost and the question of where two ladies will spend the night becomes pressing.

All very commonplace - the stuff of myriad Victorian novels. But Le Fanu skilfully introduces ever more peculiar elements - the run-down inn they eventually find; the unpleasant Irishwoman who seems to be in charge; the weeping woman in the downstairs room; the man waiting at the gate for who knows what company?

All in all, this is a pleasant enough read, and the notes by Jim Rockhill and Gary W. Crawford are interesting and informative. I also enjoyed the poem Le Fanu refers to - George Coleman the Younger's mock-Gothic 'The Maiden of the Moor, or The Water-Fiends'. I can imagine Le Fanu - often seen as a rather melancholy character - having a little chuckle to himself over that one.

Saturday, 26 September 2009

'The Brook'


I'm steadily working my way through John. L. Probert's Coffin Nails (see previous post). 'The Brook' is an interesting example of a school story - of which M.R. James' 'A School Story' is one of very good example. The late Robert Westall - a teacher by profession and of course a children's author - wrote many school stories on a supernatural theme. So how good is 'The Brook', give that this sort of thing has been done many itmes before?

It's very good. Indeed, it reminded of Westall by its economy and originality. 'The Brook' is a poem by Tennyson which a group of schoolboys are required to read, in turn, by a substitute teacher. It becomes obvious quite early on that the teacher is getting more from the readings than a keen awareness of his charges' grasp of Victorian poetic nuance. 

It's not a sinister poem, incidentally. It's the one that goes:

I come from haunts of coot and hern,
I make a sudden sally
And sparkle out among the fern,
To bicker down a valley.

Not scary, of course. Tennyson was not one for the eerie or disturbing. But there's a twist, and it's rather a good one. The story is full of effective observations, especially on the subculture of schools and the odd politics of pupil-teacher relations. The ending is of a sort that difficult to pull off. It harks back to Lovecraft's 'Dagon' in a way - the narrator is faced with Something Nasty. But here JLP offers a more subtle sense of foreboding. So, two rather conventional ingredients - the school story and the 'Argh! It's coming!' ending - are handled here to good effect. Stylistically, too, 'The Brook' is on the money, with the narrative voice that of a well-educated middle-aged man harking back to his schooldays.

Madame Talbot's Victorian Lowbrow

Oh dear, this is a wonderful opportunity to spend An Absolute Fortune. There is so much stuff here. Vampires, ghosts, stiffs, mummies, weird spooky memorabilia, and more skulls than a skull shop would reasonably stock if there'd been a sudden glut in the skull market. 

It's a bit Gothic, I suspect.

I'm always stumbling across sites like this but I am not very punctilious about mentioning them. Perhaps I should do a regular 'weird spooky links' update or something? Anyway, big ups to Madame Talbot and her minions.



Friday, 25 September 2009

Coffin Nails

John L. Probert's collection Coffin Nails arrived a bit too late for a proper review in ST16, which will be off to the printer this weekend, probably. So I'll be writing a review for ST17 next year. In he meantime, I thought I'd bung in a few perceptive comments as I read my way through the book, which is a hefty collection of spooky tales. 

For a start, it includes two stories I published first and therefore claim some credit for in a totally unscrupulous way. 'The Moving Image' is the one about the horrible thing in the old film. 'Guided Tour' is the one about the man who goes on, erm, a guided tour - just after his girlfriend has dumped him. You'd think the poor sod would get a break, but not. Needless to say they're both damn fine stories.

I've also perused a few other tales. John's way with words is certainly evident in 'Of Music and Mayhem', which is about a terrible musical entitled Oh, Hell! A cleaning lady who has false teeth that are too big for her calls her cat 'Thwogmoo (at least, that's what it thought its name was).' Also enjoyable is 'Nefarious Assortment', which features the sort of choccies no sensible ambassador would serve unless he wanted to spoil his guests in the wrong sense of the term.

Coffin Nails is published by Ash-Tree press. And John has other books out, oh yes. You can get a lot of them at Amazon. 

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

It's Not Out Yet

In fact, ST16 is not even with the printer yet. Please ignore what it says at the ST web page, this is a mistake and I'm not sure what happened. It should be a 'Coming Soon' rather than an 'Out Now'. Please be patient. It's not easy, but I'm nearly there.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

The Burkiss Way

Fans of the late Seventies BBC radio comedy - all four of us - won't need to be told how good it was. The very last show had a strong Gothic-horror theme, beginning with the Lea & Perrins Lovecraft gag. Tee-hee. You can hear the BBC recording here for a few days. I love the bit where the husband lists all the rooms in the house into which his wife must not go - all 97 of them. Note that the 'Mr Different Adams' referred to at the end was the (now late) Douglas Adams, who had in fact written for the show before going on to more lucrative projects. 

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Chapter Twelvety: In which I receive a letter

Cardinal Cox, the peripatetic poet of Peterborough, has penned a fulsome missive thanking me for promoting his works on this here blogospheric communiboard. I seek no thanks - poets deserve praise because poets are ill-rewarded. (When T.S. Eliot died he was still doing two paper rounds, you know. Fact.) Anyway, amid the general niceness, the Cardinal adds the following anecdote, of interest to all aficionados of the ghostly tale. It concerns an author who was also the Big Cheese - or possibly Canon - of Peterborough.

'Also this weekend I met a little old lady who, as a young girl, went to tea with E.G. Swain; her brother was a chorister and she was the only girl to go with the choir to these teas. She especially remembered the big round table that the tea was set out on, and if you wanted something from the other side, Canon Swain would rotate the table until the desired food came round. I met her at a tour around the cemetery that I used to be poet for. She mentioned that she'd found her great-grandparents' grave in the cemetery, but that there wasa grave at the Cathedral she was looking for, but that no-one there knew where it was. I just asked whose grave, and when she said Canon Swain I drew her a map of how to find his slab. Going to let her have a spare copy of the Aquarius (I think it was) paperback edition of his tales.'

The Cardinal rightly observes that this charming anecdote is a nice news item for the blog. He also asks if I'm going to the World Horror Con in Brighton next year? The answer, I regret to say, is no. It's a bit pricey and - to be honest - I never seem to get much out of these things. I'm too shy to go around introducing myself to people, especially since ST is such a small mag. 

Wiseguys?

Dear David,
Can you put this news on the blog:

I've got a 100-word story appearing on Microhorror, the place to be for flash horror fiction. It's called Wouldn't Move Out and it's about wiseguys:

http://www.microhorror.com/microhorror/category/author/stone-franks/

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Spine Chillers


Spine Chillers is a collection of short BBC radio dramas based on the ghost stories of M.R. James. Well, five of them. They were originally broadcast at Christmas, 2007, as part of Auntie Beeb's annual homage to the ghost story tradition. Now, at the time I wasn't overly impressed by these mini-dramas. They were good enough, I suppose, but I felt that - as introductions to MRJ's work - they lacked a certain something. What they have is Derek Jacobi as MRJ, doing a bit of narration at the beginning. Then each story is acted out by what is, I admit, a pretty impressive array of actors. Here's a quick summary of the contents.

'Oh Whistle...' stars Jamie Glover as Parkins and Nicholas Boulton as a very young Colonel Wilson. 'The Tractate Middoth' stars David Garrett, with John Rowe as the nasty Eldred. 'Lost Hearts' features the excellent Peter Marinker as Mr (even nastier-than-Eldred) Ashby. 'The Rose Garden', not a strong story, is given a boost by Anton Lesser as sensible George Goodman. And 'Number 13' starts Julian Rhind-Tutt as Anderson - again, he seems rather young for the part, but what the heck.

I admit that on a second hearing these are better than I remembered, but only just. The MRJ completist (hello, fellow spendthrifts) might like this collection as a bit of easy listening. But it's not the way to turn a sceptical person onto the ghost stories. The inevitable feeling is of rather rushed and perfunctory plot and character development, which does undermine the leisurely and good-humoured approach MRJ perfected early on.

Oh well. A much better buy from the Beeb is Derek Jacobi simply reading unabridged stories. The only collection available is entitled Volume 1, but Volume 2 is showing no signs of appearing as yet. The five stories on the first collection (two CDs) are 'A View from a Hill', 'A School Story', 'Rats', 'The Ash Tree', and 'The Story of a Disappearance and an Appearance'. Of these, I think only 'The Ash Tree' is a first rate effort, but Sir Derek reads them all with great aplomb and it's pleasant to hear good English prose treated well.  

Friday, 4 September 2009

Schalken the Painter


Another BBC reading of a classic ghost story. What's going on? Somebody has decided that it's autumn and therefore we all need a good scare as the nights draw in? Whatever the reason, it's all very welcome. While not my favourite Le Fanu tale - that honour has to go to 'Carmilla' - this is one of the best Victorian ghost stories of its kind.

Sunday, 30 August 2009

The Face


A good dramatisation of E.F. Benson's ghost story - which is one of his best - can be heard here in the old series Fear on Four.

Friday, 28 August 2009


This is a cross-posting (not an angry posting) with my other blog, because it fits into both. Sarah Millican is a brilliant Tyneside comedian who - at the current Edinburgh Festival Fringe - read her short story about a lonely hairdresser to a live audience. It's poignant and witty, packed with observational humour of the best sort. Anyone who thinks women can't be funny should listen to this. Plenty of men laughing, methinks. NB it's only available for a few days. Listen soon, my humournauts. 

Wednesday, 26 August 2009

The Mysteries of Nightmare Abbey

Many years ago I read Nightmare Abbey by Thomas Love Peacock. It is a witty Regency parody of those wacky Romantic dudes like Shelley, Byron and Coleridge. Well, apparently a group of Lincolnshire intellectuals were so impressed by this book that they formed a society called Nightmare Abbey. According to poet of Peterborough Cardinal Cox - whose new pamphlet takes its name from Peacock's book - the society soon split amid the usual rivalry and petty jealousies. But this may just be something he made up. I've no idea. Some of the entertaining notes to the collection of poems seem kosher, some - like the one that mentions an M.R. James character as a real member of the Order of St Leon and St Irvyne - seem distinctly iffy.

But that's the fun of it all. This booklet was written for a steampunk event* and has the genuine touch of alternative or alternate history. The first poem, 'Queen V's Rocket', concerns the eponymous spaceship blasting off from Rockall. Glad to see it was built (in part) on Tyneside. From this thundering start the Cardinal takes us on a steam funicular ride through a variety of scenes and characters that are almost - but not quite - ripped bodily from the pages of history and/or Victorian literature.

Hard to pick a favourite. The mourning poems 'Whitby Jet' and 'Lilies for your Grave' are terse compared to effusive 'round the houses' late Romantic verse, but still capture a Tennysonian sense of loss. Altogether more playful is 'Vampire Wine', a Byronic little piece about naughty East European plants. If I had to choose a favourite it would be 'Isabella's Herb Shop'. Anyone who knows Keats' account of the Pot of Basil will get the joke about 'Canopic pots... two feet across'.

I can't leave this topic without mentioning another Peacock book, Melincourt. It features an intelligent orang-utan called Sir Oran Haut-Ton, and was a satire (arguably) on the theories of Lord Monboddo. This pre-Darwinian thinker was convinced that we were primates, and that all human beings are in fact born with tails. Why do we never see these tails? Monboddo had an answer to this one - midwives obviously cut the tails off at birth.

'I want my tail back.' If ever there was a slogan waiting for a protest movement to come along and join it, that's it.

* The Asylum is the event, it takes place on the weekend of Sept 11th to 13th. The Mysteries of Nightmare Abbey was written as a giveaway at this 'convivial'. But you could might obtain a copy by sending an SAE to

58 Pennington
Orton Goldhay
Peterborough PE2 5RB

Monday, 24 August 2009

Japanese Ghost Paintings


If you, like me, are a fan of Japanese supernatural movies such as Kwaidan and Kuroneko, you'll like the ghost pictures of Kyosai. Spooky is the word. I found them at the excellent Japanese culture blog Pink Tentacle.

Sunday, 23 August 2009

The Amorous Ghost

Paul Daneman reads Enid Bagnold's story here. Be warned - there is a reference to stays. It's an interesting story, not just because it takes a slightly naughty tack on the familiar haunting theme. It also omits to give a reason for the haunting. It's likely that Bagnold thought of the ending first (or perhaps dreamed it) and then worked backwards. It certainly veers between country house comedy and something more disturbing.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Novocastria! Jewel of the North

Over the weekend Antonio Monteiro took many pictures of many of the many members of A Ghostly Company, many. From the right, it's me (hello fans), Malcolm Stevens, Kate Haynes, Ken Cowley, Sue 'The Hat' Gedge, Colin Penn, Helen Kemp (who won the quiz) and Tony 'The Dear Leader' Laverick.

In the second picture, taken at Old Eldon Square, the large bearded chap is Mike 'Smiler' Calvert, who co-hosted the Newcastle Black Pilgrimage. On the far right, Helen's husband Mark. Note how it's almost impossible to get people to look at the camera, because Newcastle Is So Very Interesting!  



I'm going straight to Hell

I have a guest post at the political blog Heresy Corner, in which I lay into trendy intellectuals. Hah! Serves 'em right. In the post I say that a lot of supposedly sophisticated writers who defend religion against the attacks of Richard Dawkins and Co. are frankly rubbish. There, you don't need to read it now.

Sunday, 16 August 2009

Little Goth Girl

As I've mentioned before, I like Goths, though I am not one of the tribe myself. One of the first things I took to watching on the interwebs was in fact The Little Goth Girl, a great cartoon series about - well, obviously it's about a little goth girl. You can see the animations here. It's a while since I visited Matazone, where the LGG lurks, but it's still geat stuff. Best to watch them in sequence. Other stuff on the site is great, as are some of the viewers' mad responses, like the woman who thought the monstrous yet pitiable Mr Snaffleburger was a real advertising gimmick. 

Phew

Just finished looking after members of A Ghostly Company, the supernatural fiction society. My friend Mike and I ushered nine people around Newcastle and Tynemouth without anyone getting killed, possessed, kidnapped or even lost. Along the way much ale was quaffed, though most of it not by me, and many pictures were taken. Weather variable, but bonhomie not impaired. I'm soaking my feet in a large bowl of warm water as I type this. Blimey. 

And that's just the half of it. Last weekend I was in London - Southwark, in fact. There I encountered various folk, including Mike Chislett. Jim and Todd will be pleased to hear that I did retrieve two copies of A Game of Ghosts, so expect those very soon, chaps.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The Catacombs of Fear!!!!

Bwahahahahah! Welcome to my Catacombs of Fear! I've always wanted to say that. And what a cracking title for a collection of spooky tales. It sounds like one of those anthology films Amicus did in the early Seventies. Some old josser would be sitting on a bench in a churchyard, fumbling in his corduroys, and a succession of hapless twits would sit down next to him to have a smoke or do the Times' crossword, whereupon said mystic old geezer would take out a deck of Tarot cards and engage them in a spot of prognostication. Cue bucket of fake blood and much screaming. 

But that's not what John L. Probert's new book is like. Well, I don't think so. It's a collection of tales with the linking theme of a cathedral; characters include:

'The beautiful girl whose looks are maintained by acts of violence...
The crippled ballerina desperate for new legs...
The television producer who discovers that murder improves his ratings...'

Yes, sounds like the genuine article. Check it out here

The Book Seer

This is fun, because I am frankly a bit sad. You tell the Book Seer the title and author of the last book you read, and he (really some kind o' fancy software) suggests other books you might like. Merry japestering, as I am wont to do, I typed in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James and got... Well, try it yourself. Slightly baffled by W.H. Hudson's The Purple Land. I've only come across one other reference to this book, and it's not a complimentary one. Hemingway rubbishes it in passing in The Sun Also Rises

One Eye Grey

Oddly enough, as I was setting out to Newcastle Central Station for a trip to London last Friday, I received the latest copy of One Eye Grey. Entitled 'The Last of the Chelsea Smilers', it consists of more macabre and downright weird tales of London. How much of a coincidence was that?!? Not much, really, but I'm easily impressed. 

Anyway, it's a good collection. I read much of it on the train down and found myself enjoying stories that informed me what a preternaturally ghastly metropolis I had decided to spend a weekend in. The Chelsea Smilers of the title are particularly effective nasties in a story by OEG editor Chris Roberts. Like many of the beings in the stories they are the stuff of urban legend. Other highlights include Martine Jones' 'Erase Book', with its sinister electronic puzzling antics, and 'Walking on Water' by Benedict J. Jones. The latter has a good X-Files vibe. 

But it's all good - the OEG gang continue to live up to the high standards they've set for themselves. To produce a Penny Dreadful for our times is not easy. It's good to see so many writers taking on supernatural themes. I was slightly disappointed to read that this is the only issue of 2009, but it is bumperesque in size and they are apparently planning online doings that may even include moving pictures of some kind. Fancy.

Oh, and they've got a really ace theme tune! I wish I had a theme tune, it's so classy. You can hear it and generally find out more about OEG here

Oh, yes, I enjoyed my time in London, thank you for asking. It was very hot, but being northern (and therefore Real People) I am dead hard and didn't collapse. Except in pubs.