Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Good Omens

I miss Terry Pratchett. I always miss people who make the world seem a more interesting and civilised place. God knows we've got a global surplus of the other kind of folk. So I was pleased to read that TP's collaboration with Neil Gaiman, the novel Good Omens, is coming to a screen near me.
The late Terry Pratchett would have been “over the moon” at the “dream” casting of David Tennant as the demon Crowley in the forthcoming adaptation of Good Omens, according to the Discworld author’s long-time assistant Rob Wilkins. 
Variety reported that Michael Sheen will play the angel Aziraphale, and Tennant will take on the role of Crowley, in Amazon Studios’ six-episode adaptation next year. Co-authored by Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, the 1990 fantasy bestseller Good Omens tells of Crowley and Aziraphale’s attempts to prevent the apocalypse, following the birth of the antichrist, Adam, in Lower Tadfield, Oxfordshire.

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'Ghosted'

It's inevitable that a self-consciously 21st century collection of ghost stories would include a tale about social media. Fortunately for me (and you, if you buy it) Cold Iron has one of the best examples of this sub-genre I've read.

Matt Wesolowski's story is written in the first person, present tense, and concerns a man who has had a bad breakup. Being 'ghosted', he helpfully explains, is being consigned to oblivion on Facebook, Instagram etc. Someone just stops responding to your messages - you have become invisible, or 'dead to them'.

The story features a nightmarish curry night with the lads, in which our hero is asked about his new partner. Drunkenness, confusion, and the inability to get a response to posts, messages etc all collide in a series of powerful images. Modernistic techniques are used to good effect. Finally all is made clear.

Traditionalists may not like this one. I liked it a lot. It combines deep feeling with excellent grasp of form and style. Another author to look out for.



Sunday, 13 August 2017

She (1935)

I may have mentioned this before, but the Merian C. Cooper version of Rider Haggard's She is well worth a look. It is wonderfully bonkers. Check this out.



Yes, you heard/saw right. Firstly, Nigel Bruce is in it as Horace Holly, the scientist/mentor of Leo Vincey. Secondly, it is set in the Russian Arctic, not Africa. And thirdly, the sacred flame of Kor is radium shooting out of the earth.

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And that's just the start of the hijinks. The actual plot is not too different from that of the book, but it cops out a bit re: Leo's behaviour and his fate. The equivalent to the tragic Ustain in the book is a European orphan raised in a convent, of all things.

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Perhaps the best scene is a protracted, massively choreographed dance in the Hall of Kings, which probably features every single performer on RKO's list at the time. Tremendous stuff. Not quite supernatural, thanks to the radium stuff, but a worthy stab at a mystical, powerful, and more than slightly daft classic.

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Saturday, 12 August 2017

'The Light Left'


Cold Iron: 21st Century Ghost Stories

Jane Ayrie's story in Cold Iron is a distinctly un-cosy haunted house tale.

Ally and Bo move into a new home and have trouble with the electrical supply. Or at least, that's what they think at first. But it soon emerges that only bulbs, screens, and other devices that emit light are affected. The situation is complicated by the fact that Bo has had a few problems, and is insecure about her relationship with the confident ally. Left at home while her wife wins the bread, Bo becomes increasingly desperate and fearful. Impatient at first with Bo, Ally eventually realises that the house has more than dodgy wiring.

That this is a same-sex couple is a clever twist, as it places them in relative isolation among their neighbours. One nice old lady struggling to come to terms with modernity hints that the house is troubled, and the nature of the haunting is gradually unveiled. The climactic scene is extremely effective, with a classic bait-and-switch moment. The final passages hint that perhaps the effects of the haunting will linger.

So, another positive score! At the two-third mark (roughly) Cold Iron is shaping up into a really good read. More soon.

Friday, 11 August 2017

'The Lengthsman'

Charles Wilkinson is a regular contributor to many of the best weird/horror publications (ahem) so it's not surprising that his story in Cold Iron is a very good one. It demonstrates just how much freight the supposedly slight format of the traditional ghost story can carry.

'The Lengthsman' is a tale of class, childhood, superstition, and a lot of other things besides. Timothy is spending the summer vacation in Wales, where he's made friends with local boy Rhodri. The chasm between them - Timothy will soon be returning to a boarding school - is bridged by real friendship. But the other village boys are not so keen on their posh English visitor, and Timothy is an obvious target for bullying. Rhodri rescues his friend from young thugs - but other threats are less easily dealt with.

Rhodri's grandfather was a collector of folk tales. Timothy's father is casually dismissive of the way Rhodri passes many Welsh stories on to his son. But the Lengthsman (a figure not unlike the famous Slender Man) is very real to Timothy. The final revelation, when father is about to drop son off at school, is precisely balanced between the real and the surreal. This one should be reprinted in a 'best of' anthology, I feel. It certainly bears rereading.

More from this running/staggering/crawling review soon!

Thursday, 10 August 2017

'Appropriation'

The next story in Cold Iron is by Michael James Parker, and is a tale of a Haunted Object. Or in this case, two objects - hair sandals. Apparently it was once customary for Chinese widows to weave slippers of their hair as a mark of mourning. I had no idea this happened and am now fascinated by the concept. But of course, in the story a rather smug Western person obtains the sandals and proposes to flog them for a ton of cash.

This is familiar territory to ghost story fans. M.R. James did it well in 'The Haunted Dolls' House', for instance, but we can all think of half a dozen good examples. 'Appropriation' works well as an example of the tradition, not least when the ghost itself appears. Again, the description of the being is very M.R. James, complete with flaps of skin, patches of decay, a few hairs streaked over a dead scalp.

This is arguably the most effective horror story in  the book so far, with the ghost-as-monster that deals harshly with shallow, greedy folk. Cultural appropriation is of course a big, complex issue. But here the author manages to encapsulate the anger it arouses in fictional form. Good stuff. More of this review soon.

'A Trick of the Light'

In Cold Iron we find much that is traditional, familiar, perhaps even hackneyed. This is inevitable with a ghost story anthology, even if you recruit the best talent. The term 'ghost story' is bound to be interpreted narrowly (as 'a dead person turning up and acting a lot like a living person') by some. But so far Cold Iron has avoided this trap more often than not.

Thus in Andrew Jones' story of a half-glimpsed form in a country house, we know it's a ghost. That's a given. But who is it a ghost of and what does it want, signify, or portend? It's a very short tale, almost a prose-poem on loss, and the endurance of memory. The ghost is 'real' in the way that the narrator's memories of their father are real. The old man is dead and the house where they lived is now in the hands of strangers. But the lady still stands there, just visible, looking on.

Another good one, this. Another author worth seeking out. I am learning a lot about contemporary writers from this book. More of this running/stumbling review soon!

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

'The Installation'

After a brief interlude in Oxford, city of dreaming spires (and Inspector Morse pubs, and places used in Harry Potter films), I have returned to continue my running review of Cold Iron. I must say Oxford is a lovely place, chock-full of culture and stuff, and absolutely heaving with tourists during the day. At night in summer the city is almost deserted - astonishingly few people in the pubs, such as the Lamb and Flag, where C.S. Lewis and J.R. Tolkien

"Get on with it, Lewis! I'm off to be rude to a woman and then sit in my Jag listening to Mozart!"

"But sir...!"

'The Installation' by Noreen Rees offers some moderately light relief from the bleaker fare in the first half of the book. A man whose life is falling apart after his girlfriend leaves him is visited by a TV technician. The visitor incorrectly names the protagonist as Mister Lovecat, but since the bloke hasn't got a telly package he plays along. Eventually he gets the gadget to work and watches 'an old episodes of The Sopranos'.

Sam, the installer, returns to offer some tech support. He heals the rift in the life of 'Lovecat', and of course there is a twist ending that is fairly predictable. But as vignettes go this one works well. It is not quite 'Alas! Poor ghost', but in that ballpark.

From the Dark (2014)


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We've seen a fair number of Irish horror movies this century, perhaps in part due to the development of Ireland's 'Celtic Tiger' economy around 2000. Whatever the reason, I've enjoyed some of these productions a lot. Wake Wood (2009) and Grabbers (2012) are both, in their different ways, homages to classic horror plots. Last night I watched another Irish horror/thriller that falls into a well-established category, and enjoyed it in moderation. 
From the Dark is the tale of Mark and Sarah, a young couple on holiday in County Offaly. Predictably enough they get lost and then their car breaks down on a country road. What will they encounter? An isolated community conducting a weird pagan ritual, while brandishing sharp implements? An inbred family of cannibals, brandishing sharp implements? Well, no, this one is about a monster of distinctly supernatural qualities, and its sharp implements are its teeth.


We know what's going on, more or less, thanks to an opening scene featuring a lone peat cutter. The old farmer unearths a bog-body, which would be lovely for archaeology. Unfortunately the simple countryman firstly pulls a stake from the body, which is asking for trouble. Sure enough, by the time Mark plods his way to the farm looking for help the old man is far gone. He has been bitten by something between Nosferatu and a CHUD - a being that happens to be allergic to light.

Sarah and Mark find themselves in the farmhouse where most of the lights have been smashed. They have to produce enough light to keep the creature at bay until dawn. Unfortunately Mark is badly mangled and Sarah has to person up. In the role Niamh Algar gives it full throttle as a kind of Final Girl (who also happens to be the Only Girl, it's a low-budget film). The scenes in which Sarah has to produce light by any means and is reduced to relying on an almost-empty box of matches are very effective. Eventually, as we know she will, Sarah defeats the beast. But not before she has suffered at least one terrible defeat.

This one passes the time, but is a little over-long for its premise. As an episode of a series it might have been brilliant. As a film it does inevitably seem a little cheap and uninspired. But visually it works well most of the time, and a creature that is only ever glimpsed, always in shadow and often out of focus, is always fun.

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Thursday, 3 August 2017

'Dulce et Decorum'

Christine D. Goodwin's contribution to Cold Iron is a modern morality fable. The title is a hefty clue as to what historical period intersects with the present.

Wayne and Shaun are two bad lads from dodgy backgrounds who decide to have some fun in a graveyard at night. Wayne is the badder of the two, with Shaun the 'soft as shite' sidekick who does not approve of cruelty to animals. Under the influence of drink and drugs Wayne goes berserk and starts smashing up the graves while Shaun tries to talk him down. Needless to say, Wayne falls foul of resident spirits - but his fate is unusual, and well-described.

The thrust of the story is that the past is never gone, thought it might be forgotten. Overgrown graves are a powerful metaphor for the way the harsher and more significant parts of history can be lost - or mislaid - by the thoughtless and shallow. It's a punchy tale, marred by an overly-predictable ending that is a bit too tidy.

More about this enjoyable anthology soon.

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

DUST

So, here's a creepy little tale featuring Alan 'Snape' Rickman and Jodie 'The Doctor' Whittaker.

Worlds of Wells

What is this mysterious envelope? Why, it is only another slender pamphlet of verse from Cardinal Cox, erstwhile Poet Laureate of Peterborough. Oh, and he just happens to be focusing on my favourite of all time...


Yes, it's the Bertie Wells half-hour, or however long it takes you to read some poems. This is cracking little volumette, and I will now proceed to praise its contents. As usual, each short poem is accompanied by the Cardinal's thoughts on related matters.


Tuesday, 1 August 2017

'Sunday Lunch'

Jenny Cozens' contribution to Cold Iron looks at a different aspect of paranormal investigation. It features that stock situation beloved of horror movie writers: "Let's hold a seance!" It takes still to make this setup feel fresh, and I think the author manages it in a handful of pages.

In this case Mary, a widow, is secretly keen to get a message from her late husband, Ron. She persuades her daughter Louise and her cynical husband John to try and communicate with the Other Side. The couple's young sons find it all great fun, especially when a message they understand is spelled out. It seems that John's mother has something she wants to say...

I liked this one, especially since so much is left unsaid and unexplained. Mary's quest for her particular truth has merely unearthed another. Will she try to reach Ron again? It seems likely, and it's equally likely that she will not like what he has to say.

More from this running review soon. Now that I'm about halfway through Cold Iron I'm finding it a rewarding collection. Given that it contains wholly original material, it's an impressive book.