Monday, 24 April 2017

Poe Power

Image result for poe

The Sunday Times (evil Murdoch paywall, but you can sign up for a couple of free items a week if you like) has an interesting article by Stephen Amidon about the American short story. Amidon argues, quite reasonably, that American authors are often masters (or mistresses?) of short-form fiction. Most British novelists are not. Ireland is another story, but let's stay focused here.

According to Amidon
While the modern short story was probably born in Germany in the early 19th century, with works by writers such as ETA Hoffmann and Heinrich von Kleist, the genre came into its own in the US over the next few decades. The honour of the first great American short story must go to Washington Irving, whose canonical The Legend of Sleepy Hollow was published in 1820. 
It was in May 1842, however, that US pre-eminence was firmly established when Graham’s Magazine of Philadelphia published two pieces by the 33-year-old Edgar Allan Poe. The first was one of his “tales of ratiocination”, The Masque of the Red Death, whose intense narrative concentration and focus on the feverish workings of his protagonist’s inner psychology prefigured much of what was to come.
Quite true. Poe put his tanks (or dragoons, or whatever) on the castle lawns of all those authors of three-decker Gothic novels by showing all their favourite tropes worked better in condensed form. After Poe no US writer needed to feel guilty about writing something shorter than 20,000 words. And, as Amidon astutely points out, the US economy's clout meant that there were always publishers for short fiction willing to pay decent rates.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

'The Keeper' by Alan Garner

This is a half-hour story from the early Eighties TV series Dramarama, produced by Thames for older children. You can find the whole series (in glorious VHS quality) on YouTube, but Garner is the star writer.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Graphic Ghosts

The writer John Reppion, who I had the pleasure to meet all too briefly in Liverpool, and his partner Leah Moore are working on graphic novel versions of M.R. James ghost stories. They're doing a spiffing job IMHO. Check out this link.








Wednesday, 12 April 2017

'Between Me and the Sun'


The third and final novella in From Ancient Ravens is by John Howard. If Ron Weighell's style is Decadent absinthe and Mark Valentine's is nostalgic old English ale, Howard's is a drink of cool water, or perhaps refreshing lemonade.
This is, at first, a relatively simple tale of three boys growing up in rural England. It's told from the viewpoint of David, whose relationship to his long-time friend Clive becomes complex in early adolescence due to the arrival of Iain. Iain is a dreamer, into astronomy, a lover of landscape. Tensions between the three build up at they approach their O-levels - this is late Seventies England, judging by such internal evidence. Eventually bickering and bullying leads to a strange tragedy in a complex of chalk caves.


From Ancient Ravens cover

This story reminded me slightly of 'Death By Landscape' a Margaret Atwood story that also concerns a baffling disappearance. Like Atwood, Howard is keen to explore the far-reaching consequences of seemingly trivial actions, especially when the actors are immature. The weird element of the story is interwoven with exultant passages on the wonders of the universe, which - as an astronomy buff - I found compelling. Another theme, that of a troubled sexual awakening, is subtly counterpointed by images of darkness, things hidden, and subterranean perils.

Overall, From Ancient Ravens is a very diverse and satisfying selection of works by three very different authors. What the three have in common is their knowledge of and reverence for the complex tapestry we call weird fiction. I'm sorry that we will here no more from these Three (New) Impostors, but I think they have bid their admirers a very heartfelt adieu.

'The Asmodeus Fellowship'


From Ancient Ravens cover

I like stories within stories. Ron Weighell's contribution to From Ancient Ravens is a tale-infested tale of a storytelling club in old Budapest. The era is one of Decadence, the characters are larger than life, and the tales they tell are correpondingly extravagant.

First up is 'The Recondite Lives of Giorgio Vasari', a story of Venice. A browser at an antiquarian bookshop becomes acquainted with two mysterious bibliophiles. They offer him the chance to examine one of their unique collection of obscure volumes, but there is catch. He can only read for as long as a lamp burns. The narrator chooses a mysterious volume that seems to be the original, unexpurgated text of Vasari's famous Lives of the Painters. It is replete with odd and disturbing anecdotes of Renaissance Italy many obviously fantastical. Or are they? He comes to suspect that 'The world is full of gods.'

The second tale told is 'The Capriccio', a vignette concerning a sub-genre of sculpture that is new to me. An artist demonstrates her skill by carving an elaborate group of figures out of a single block of stone. This capriccio turns out radiate more than artistic beauty when it is displayed in a particular fashion. The images haunt the storyteller until he realises their hidden significance.

Another vignette, 'The Town Without a Tailor', arguably channels Clark Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsany. It is replete with magical powers and monstrous beings, and has the kind of horrific twist that Lovecraft would no doubt have enjoyed.

The fourth and final story is 'The Vanished Library', a Borgesian account of a journalist in Prague who seeks out the bizarre even when ordered to write a simple account of a civil engineering project. This tendency loses him his job, but gains him an invitation to join a select group of bibliophiles. What is the significance of cards found in obscure books bearing the image of a phoenix and the initials ILP? Is it merely an elaborate hoax?

As with all of Ron Weighell's recent work this novella is a feast of arcane knowledge and playful speculation. He delights in puzzles, tricks, and revelations that show the world to be stranger than we already suspected. The style is perhaps too rich for some palates, but there's no denying the craftsmanship that went into this box of dark delights.

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Glorious Vote Victory!

Supernatural Tales 34First time author Giselle Leeb has won the popular vote for issue 34! Well done to her, and a princely sum of twenty-five quid will be heading her way shortly. If not sooner!

If you'd like to read Giselle's story, or indeed any of the excellent tales in the latest issue, why not buy a copy? You know it makes sense. Purchasing any issue of ST is remarkably easy. Just go here and then click on your method of choice.

Thursday, 6 April 2017

From Ancient Ravens - 'The Fifth Moon'

Paul Lowe's expressive depiction of the authors' muses at work

The latest volume from Sarob Press is the last in a series - the 'New Impostors', Mark Valentine, Ron Weighell, and John Howard. In the past these three literary scamps have paid tribute to Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. To sign off they have produced a third volume of wholly original novellas. From Ancient Ravens takes its title from Shakespeare. Look it up!

First up is Mark Valentine, with 'The Fifth Moon'. This is the tale of a writer who sets out to produce a popular book about one of the great moments in English history, the loss of King John's treasure in the Wash. (For overseas readers, the Wash is a tidal bay and not a laundry service.) Accompanied by a photographer the first-person narrator sets off for East Anglia to search for local legends about the incident. Inevitably, he finds far more than he bargained for.

This story is set in a period that might be vaguely termed 'between the wars' or 'after the war'. It has the Jamesian slight haze of distance, complete with steam trains and native-born fruit pickers. As always Valentine brings plenty of erudition to the table, offering several takes on the treasure legend. A gallery of well-drawn characters appear, each with a theory of his/her own. Eventually there is a revelation, but it is not the discovery one might expect.

In plot terms, this is a simple tale, but it is rich and complex on an emotional level. The descriptions of rural England are so evocative that they cry out for a film maker to bring them to the screen, or a  gifted artist to paint them. But at the heart of the story is ambiguity. Like King John's reputation, the his treasure will never cease to be a matter of doubt and disputation.

We're off to a great start. I will post the second part of this running review in a day or so.