Saturday, 30 December 2017

Happy Birthday, Barbara Steele

Image result for barbara steele

The queen of Italian horror cinema, British actress Barbara Steele, is eighty today! Raise a glass of something suitably dark, rich, and red to her.

Image result for barbara steele

Image result for barbara steele

Friday, 29 December 2017

The Autopsy of Jane Doe (2016)

The Autopsy of Jane Doe.jpegThis American film co-stars Scotland's finest, Brian Cox (the original movie Hannibal Lecter), so for that reason I thought I'd give it a go. I'm glad I did. I've been disappointed by the quality of a lot of US horror lately, and while far from perfect TAOJD is pretty good.

The story begins with a crime scene, and the usual palaver - little markers around a blood-soaked small-town home, photographer flashing away. The sheriff is baffled by a multiple homicide in a house where there is no sign of breaking and entering. It's almost as if the victims were trying to get out. Then, in the basement, the cops find something even stranger - the half-buried body of a young woman. They cannot identify her, and there is no sign of violence.

Jane Doe is taken to the local morgue, run by father and son team Tommy and Austin Tilden. Tommy (Cox) is under pressure to find the cause of death, and Austin (Emile Hirsch) postpones a date with girlfriend Emma (Ophelia Lovibond) to help his dad. There's a little morgue humour, of course, but as the autopsy proceeds things take a turn for the weird. This is very much a supernatural horror film, rooted in American folklore and history. The first clue as to JD's true identity is the unusual narrowness of her waist. I was kicking myself for not getting that until much later.

While not excessively gory TAOJD is about, well, cutting up a body, so it might not be to some people's taste. The ending is also a little wonky, and inevitably it does rely on scares of a familiar kind. But the premise is nicely executed and does tackle an issue that was also central to one of the BBC's Ghost Stories from Christmas, many moons again. I will say no more!

Friday, 22 December 2017

Ghost Stories For Christmas

'The Trial for Murder'

Christmas is traditional a time for etcetera. We all know the drill. But which ghost stories are best for the festive season? There are lots of lists out there, so I thought I'd scrutinise a few and see just what the trend young folk* are pushing as suitable Yuletide fare.

First, there's an item from the Independent about the tradition of telling ghost stories are Christmas. The author, Keith Lee Morris, ranged rather widely, putting the gang at the Villa Deodati into the tradition. Admittedly 1816 had a miserable summer, but their stories were written in June. And nobody will ever call 'Frankenstein' a Christmas ghost story, will they? Still, it's an interesting piece.

Onward to the lists. Here The Paris Review lists '5 Forgotten Christmas Ghost Stories'. The stories are: 'Between the Lights' by E.F. Benson; 'The Kit-Bag' by Algernon Blackwood; 'A Strange Christmas Game' by J.H. Riddell; 'Christmas Re-union' by Sir Andrew Caldecott; and 'Smee' by A.M Burrage. Well, they're not really forgotten, are they? Tales by Burrage, Blackwood, and Benson are all quite well-known to ghost story fans. The other two are found in quite a few collections of Victorian supernatural fiction. The Riddell story has just been released as part of a Christmas special by the audio-book publisher Audible, in fact, narrated by Simon Callow and Sally Phillips. But it's a nice list, nonetheless.

Interesting Literature has a list of ten Victorian ghost stories, and I have no quibble with the quality of their selection. 'Lost Hearts' by M.R. James squeaks in under the line, dating from 1895. Charlotte Riddell's 'The Open Door' rubs shoulders with works by Le Fanu, Stevenson, and Kipling (though I doubt that 'The End of the Passage' is really a ghost story). Another good list, but inevitably leaving out some excellent 20th century pieces.

Finally, here's a list of the seven best ghost stories by Dickens - not including 'A Christmas Carol'. Again there are some interesting ones here, reminding us that Dickens was prolific and perennially obsessed with the macabre. Guess which story is rated No. 1? Sadly, I can offer no prizes for the correct answer...

Image result for the signalman charles dickens

So that's a short list of lists. I will be reading and watching a lot of ghost stories in the dark weeks to come, of course.

*People who makes lists of stuff on the internet

Old Grey Whistlefest

Over at the BFI website you can see an item about a 1956 adaptation of an M.R. James classic. No, not the Miller one with Michael Hordern, the amateur one that's just been brought to light. It's rather nice and of course quite seasonal in its way.

The title screen of the 1956 version

There's even a sheet with an actual face.Not bad for post-war enthusiasts on a zero budget.

The ghostly bed sheet in the 1956 version

There's a link in the article that takes you to the 1956 film, which is free to watch and lasts 10 mins. 

Wednesday, 20 December 2017


The next story in the Women in Horror Annual 2 is by Kathleen Danielson. It's set on Halloween, and a group of youngsters decide to test out an urban legend. Apparently you can summon something nasty if you say a particular rhyme while looking into a mirror. Of course, a great deal of scepticism is expressed about this. So the characters decide to draw straws to see who gets to conduct the inevitable experiment.

If that very sounds familiar, it is. However, the author offers a twist. This is a world where werewolves (here termed 'lycans') co-exist with ovine humanoids. I must admit this threw me a little, but it's all clearly meant in fun. I was slightly surprised to find two werewolf stories in succession, but perhaps that's part of a cunning plan. A nice enough story, 'Red', but it didn't do a lot for me.

More from this running review soon.

Christmas Spookery on the BBC

I wish the BBC would go back to producing a new 'Ghost Story for Christmas' every year, but I suspect that phantom ship has sailed. But it's good to see that Auntie has decided to wheel out her back-list of ghostly dramas. 

On  Christmas Eve Mark Gatiss' adaptation of 'The Tractate Middoth' will be shown, preceded by the short documentary 'M.R. James: Ghost Writer'. It will be followed by 'No. 13: A Ghost Story' (not brilliant, but okay), then 'The Signalman'. Christopher Lee's readings of two MRJ ghost stories will follow at midnight, and then at 1pm there will be 'A View from a Hill', which I quite like. It's a very visual story and I think it works rather well. Haunted binoculars!

Monday, 18 December 2017

The White Road - Review

Sarob Press has answered the prayers of a host of bibliophiles by publishing a lavish collection of Ron Weighell's stories. The original Ghost Story Press edition of The White Road has long been a collector's item, and it's easy to see why. This is a book that deserves to be dubbed a classic of supernatural fiction. It contains two dozen stories ranging in quality from good to excellent, and is very much in the British weird tradition.

The Sarob volume is illustrated by Nick Maloret. As well as a superb dustjacket, there are remarkable end-paper and cover art. I am a terrible photographer, but I thought I would try to capture them regardless.

See? Told you I was rubbish at taking pictures, but at least you get some idea of the quality of Maloret's work. The overall feel of the book is luxurious, of course, and proclaims it a genuine collector's item. But what of the stories themselves?

Saturday, 16 December 2017

More Audio Spookery

Want some more weird and wonderful stuff to listen to in the run-up to Yuletide? Here are some readings of classic tales, beginning with E.F. Benson's story of dire doings in a quaint little place not unlike 'Tilling'. It's as if Miss Mapp had gone a bit feral.

Now for a bit of Walter de la Mare. This is a Sixties US radio adaptation of one of Walt's best-known stories, and I think it comes across well.

If you liked that, you'll probably like this. The Black Mass adapted an M.R. James story that, while nobody's absolute favourite, is enigmatic and interesting. What were they up to? And what happened on that final, fateful night?

A Canadian radio show, next - Nightfall, which ran from 1980-83. This is their adaptation of a classic tale of girl-on-girl vampirism, which in the early Seventies spawned several films featuring young women in anachronistic nighties.

Finally, we're back to Montyworld and a reading of 'Casting the Runes' by Michael Hordern.

'Backseat Driver'

'I stir the thick red generic alphabet spaghetti, all the while eyeing the rat poison looming tantalisingly within arms reach.'

Thus begins Nicky Peacock's contribution to Women in Horror Annual 2. This is a more playful work that the two preceding tales. It begins with a portrait of a dysfunctional marriage in which the wife is also acting as mother to an overgrown adolescent - a man obsessed with conspiracy theories and the like.

When we join her she resolves to leave him, taking her trusty old dog, and just driving off into the night. Unfortunately she strays off the highway onto a country road, where she finds a hit-and-run victim of a rather unusual kind. This is the first of a series of encounters that come straight from the realms of urban legend-based horror movies.

I found this one enjoyable enough, though - paradoxically, given the content - a bit bloodless. Running review continues, though I suspect I won't get finished until the New Year.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

'Behind the Music'

The second story in the Women in Horror Annual 2 (see below) is by Madison McSweeney. It begins with a couple of cops discussing a badly injured woman who has fallen from a hotel balcony. The room in question belongs to a rock singer, Silas Oddside, and obvious conclusions are drawn. We then flashback to a young lady called Cherry who blags her way backstage at a rock concert to try and get jiggy with her favourite singer.

The story unfolds as the cops gradually discover just how strange Cherry's encounter with Oddside was. The revelation is foreshadowed, and it's quite neatly done, though I did wonder exactly how a career in rock music could be balanced with Oddside's unusual habits. Hey, it's only a story, right? A story set in 1987, as it happens. This was during the horror boom, and 'Behind the Music' does have an Eighties vibe - a time when the genre was shaking off some of its more cumbersome Gothic baggage, but also becoming more self-consciously trendy.

So, an okay story with some good moments, but nothing special. Stay tuned for more takes on WHA 2.

Women in Horror Annual 2 - Running Review

Yes, it's time for more of my so-called opinions on stories, in this case collected by Canadian editor C. Rachel Katz. Here is the blurbette about the book.
The Women in Horror Annual 2 is the second volume of an anthology of horror fiction and nonfiction written by women. WHA promotes and celebrates female voices in horror, and the stories and papers contained within represent a diverse group of writers, each with their own unique vision. Ranging from supernatural tales of horror to quotidian terror, and touching on themes of empowerment, insanity, and freedom, the stories herein run the gamut from melancholic to darkly humorous. As was the case with the first volume, WHA 2 is further proof that horror has something for everyone.
So, let's get started with the first story. 'Rumspringa' by Melissa Burkley presented me with a new word, right there in the title! I looked it up - 'Rumspringa, or “running around”, is the term used to describe the period of adolescence Amish experience starting at around age 16.' Lovely word.

In this story a girl called Constance is sent out into the world of the Outsiders for her Rumpringa. Equipped with strange modern clothes, an emergency whistle, and a credit card she leaves her insular community and ends up at a cheap hotel near a truck stop. There she befriends a hooker, enjoys junk food, and discovers the hard way that she can never really fit in with modern Americans. There are a lot of dangerous people out there. And other things.

Now, I've read a lot of horror and I did guess the twist to this one. That said, I enjoyed the way Constance comes to terms with her strange heritage in a story that has a whiff of The X-Files about it. So, a good start. More about WHA 2 very soon!

Women in Horror Annual 2 (WHA) by [Katz, C. Rachel]

Mark Gatiss reads E.F. Benson

Random House Audio has produced a nice audio collection of some of Benson's 'greatest hits' in the ghost story genre. Mark Gatiss does an excellent job of reading 'em. Need I say more? Oh all right then...

The stories in the collection are: 'The Bus Conductor', 'Negotium Perambulans', ''...And No Birds Sing'', 'Spinach', 'Mrs Amworth', 'In the Tube','The Room in the Tower', 'Caterpillars', and 'The Man Who Went Too Far'. I would have preferred 'How Fear Departed from the Long Gallery' to 'Spinach', which is lightweight stuff, but perhaps the former was a bit too long?

Gatiss, a fan of the Mapp and Lucia books, adopts a relatively light touch with the characters and settings here, emphasising the pleasant rural atmosphere in 'Mrs Amworth'. In 'Spinach', a comic tale', he has fun with the slightly preposterous society psychics. The climactic moments of genuine horror are well delivered, though. Overall it's a very relaxing listen at bedtime. Unless you're the sort of person who can't sleep after hearing about someone attacked by a giant spectral slug.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Don't forget to vote!

Supernatural Tales 36Fans of ST, if you've read the latest issue - which you can order here, along with back issues - why not give your verdict on  which story is best? The poll is over to the right, top of the page. It's easy - just point and click in a mousey fashion. You can pick more than one if you can't settle on a clear favourite.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

'Narrative of the Ghost of a Hand'

Superficially simple but in fact deeply disturbing story by Le Fanu. A case of a Victorian ghostly tale in which little is explained but much can be imagined. Some lovely scenes - especially when the sceptical paterfamilias decides to open the front door...

'The Lodestone'

My favourite of Sheila Hodgson's plays based featuring M.R. James as a kind of psychic sleuth.

Wednesday, 6 December 2017

'The Sundial' by R.H. Malden

A fine ghost story of the old school by an author much influenced by M.R. James. Malden only wrote one collection of tales - a not-uncommon situation with authors of ghost stories. There's an excellent essay on Malden by the Roger Johnson here. Unlike James, who was never ordained, Malden was an Anglican clergyman and rose to become Dean of Wells Cathedral.

Tuesday, 5 December 2017

'The Midnight House'

Image result for hogarth credulity

The Hogarth engraving above is a little masterpiece of bonkersness, giving the lie to the notion that the so-called Age of Reason was anything of the sort. Check out the link explaining all the cases of withcraft and possession the artist depicts.

Which leads us nicely onto the play, 'The Midnight House'. It is obviously derived from M.R. James' 'The Mezzotint', but is I think an excellent variation on the theme rather than an adaptation. And it's  all about a picture by Hogarth that, while apparently devoid of supernatural imagery, is in fact downright evil...

Seasonal Spookery

The first of many readings and links to things that I hope to post as Yuletide approaches. It's the time of year for strange tales, ghostly occurrences, and general malarkey of that sort. I thought I'd start with a bit of Poe, and who better to read it than Basil Rathbone? His voice is, I think, perfect for the precise yet florid Gothic prose of this and similar stories.