Friday, 20 April 2018

Waiting in the Shadows - Running Review

Sarob Press has published a new collection of stories by Katherine Haynes. As you can see it has a typically classy cover by Paul Lowe. I'll be reviewing it over the next couple of weeks (probably),

Waiting in the Shadows is bound to appeal to lovers of the traditional ghost story, particularly M.R. James fans like me. The first story, 'The Chapel in the Woods' is based on an outline by MRJ in his 'Stories I Have Tried to Write'. It does, however, offer a significant variation.

A schoolboy joins a friend for Christmas at an isolated country house. The friend's guardian covets the house but it is the boy's by right. A friendly local priest takes an interest in the young folk, who explore the eponymous chapel.

A book found in the derelict chapel seems likely to interest the erudite clergyman. The narrator urges his host not to give it to the priest, however, because it seems 'evil'. The priest suffers an unpleasant fate. That is where MRJ's outline ends, but Kate Haynes adds a coda in which the narrator returns to see his old school-friend. It transpires that the dark arts have been put to use once more.

'The Chapel in the Woods' is a story that goes beyond Jamesian pastiche, both in tone and content. The chilly winter conditions are well-evoked. All in all, a good start. More of my reactions this collection very soon.

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Vote, Vote, Vote for Spiffing Stories!

Yes, the latest mighty volume of ST is out there, and the authors are eagerly awaiting the verdict of the reading public. Or at least the proportion of the reading public that can be bothered to vote on the poll, top right (look over there, yes that's it).

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Remember, the winner of the ST readers' poll will receive £25 and tremendous kudos. But they can't buy stuff with kudos, so think of the money! Think of the happy little author deciding that they can afford that second-hand cloak after all. Or just some booze. The point is, vote!

You can vote for more than one story, too.

I should have mentioned that earlier.

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Friday, 13 April 2018

Supernatural Tales - Kindle Edition

Supernatural Tales 37: Spring 2018 by [Longhorn, David, Grant, Helen, Clark, Chloe N., Muller, C.M., Valentine, Mark, Schliewe, Jeremy]
Follow the link to the digital, Space Age version of the magazine. You know it makes cyber-sense.

New Issue Available!

Supernatural Tales 37If you go to this link you will find Supernatural Tales 37 - Spring 2018. It contains stories by Helen Grant, C.M. Muller, Jeremy Schliewe, Chloe N. Clark, and Mark Valentine. You will also find lots of lovely back issues, hint hint.




Thursday, 12 April 2018

Indian Horror

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Bollywood Gothic

A few years back I became semi-addicted to what was termed Asian horror. This was down to the horror boom that followed the surprise success of the Japanese film Ring(u). It was followed by more Japanese films, plus Korean and Hong Kong horror. A little later other countries joined in, notably Thailand, with movies like Shutter. Vietnam and Cambodia have also produced some interesting films. A lot of Asian horror movies were made for DVD release in the US, such was the demand. But, inevitably, the genre went a little stale as tropes quickly became familiar and sequels suffered from the law of diminishing returns. At the same time other Asian countries that we don't associate with horror have started to 'come through', notably Iran - A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night.

However, while I was noodling about on YouTube looking for clips of likely movies I did notice that roughly half of the population of Asia did not seem keen on being scared. Bollywood is the world's biggest film industry, but horror movies were a tiny sub-genre in India. Most Indian horror films, about 15 years ago, were short, amateur or 'indie' productions. However, in recent years things have changed for the better. So here are some examples of Indian screen horror I've seen lately.

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First up, Kanika (2017). Written and directed by Pushkar Manohar, this is a fairly basic 'people haunted by lethal ghost girl' tale. The influence of East Asian horror is very evident, but the production values are not very high. The main interest - for me - is the way in which the 'victims' are all members of a medical profession that has committed a very specific crime. They are guilty of gender-specific abortions on behalf of families who don't want girl children. This adds a uniquely Indian feel to what is, in other respects, a familiar tale of vengeance from beyond the grave.

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Look at the picture above. It is the cast of the 2013 film Horror Story. These crazy young people have a party, then some idiot suggests going to the old abandoned hotel outside the city. You know, the one that was reportedly built on top of an asylum. Derivative in the extreme, Horror Story is still a lot of fun, mainly because you can play guessing games. Will the party girl in sparkly hot-pants die first, or will it be the smooth guy in the waistcoat? And who will survive, and how will they defeat/neutralise the ghost? What is the back story of this haunting, anyway?

I enjoyed this film more than I expected, as it is well-paced and not too silly. Standard Hollywood fair with a Bollywood veneer, it does not outstay its welcome at the  Hotel Grandiose. Yes, that's what the haunted hotel is called. It's that kind of film.


Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Issue #37 is almost here!


Includes stories by Helen Grant, Mark Valentine, C.M. Muller, Jeremy Schliewe, and Chloe N. Clark. Soon to be available to purchase as a paperback and ezine. Cover illo by Sam Dawson.

Is it really 2018?

Blimey.

The Prozess Manifestations - Review

“The Prozess Manifestations” by Mark Samuels (numbered edition)

I received a free copy of this stylish, numbered edition from Zagava. As you can see it's got one of the least expressive covers of our time. But perhaps that's the point, as The Prozess Manifestations is a thoroughly dark book. The contents are:

“Decay”
“An End to Perpetual Motion”
“Moon Blood Red – Tide Turning”
“The Crimson Fog”
“The Court of Midnight”
“In the Complex”

The central conceit linking all but one of these tales is an offstage character called Doctor Prozess, who is responsible for various baffling and disturbing events. Howeve, Prozess is not mentioned in the longest story, 'The Crimson Fog', leaving this collection almost but not quite themed. A fault, a joke, a deliberate snook-cocking? I don't know.

In the first story a convincingly unpleasant Silicon Valley type sets off in search of a possible solution to the problem of Artificial Intelligence. Carlos Diaz spends so much timed and money on prostitutes and drugs that he fails to notice civilisation collapsing around him thanks to a mind-destroying game based on Mandalas. He eventually encounters 'Doc Prozess', in a way, and the big reveal is nicely done. But this is really a science fiction story of the sort one might find in Interzone, and therefore a bit outside the scope of yours truly.

In 'An End to Perpetual Motion' we jump back in time to the Thirties, and a successful British writer on his way to Hollywood to script 'talkies'. You know how sometimes a trivial blunder can ruin any feeling of authenticity? Well, that happened for me here, as the first person narrator tells us that his old trouble with insomnia recurred 'at the end of the first week' of his trans-Atlantic voyage. If a liner took more than a week to cross the Atlantic back in those days there was something seriously wrong with it - 5-6 days was average.

That gripe aside it's a decent enough story. Man encounters stranger who seems obsessed  with the speed of the ship, and afraid it might stop. Stranger has significant name of Zeno, who demonstrated the theoretical impossibility of motion a while back. Ship, inevitably, stops. We learn that Doctor Prozess is the stranger's pursuer. The conclusion is not especially startling but it satisfies.

'Moon Blood Red - Tide Turning' is my favourite, perhaps because it is short and concise. Here the narrator is a rather Aickmanesque figure, someone who moves from one minor publishing job to another, and encounters an actress (we're in the late 20th century, at first). The narrator attends a performance of an experimental play by Doctor Prozess, during which a lunar eclipse plunges the Cornish outdoor theatre into darkness. Decades later, the narrator encounters the cast again.

'The Crimson Fog', a science fiction novella, paces restlessly between Ballard and Lovecraft, and can't seem to settle. A remote region of Asia is covered by the eponymous fog, a mysterious phenomenon that brings with it alien flora and huge, tick-like predators dubbed 'friends'. The Crimson Fog grows and will soon cover the earth unless it is stopped.

This setup is strikingly reminiscent of the film Annihilation, based on a book by Jeff Vandermeer. But, as I said, the mysterious 'Zone' that fascinates and then destroys the adventurer, the visionary, and the boffin is a venerable concept. The bar is correspondingly high, I feel.

Conventional military assaults on the Crimson Fog fail, but one officer - a Kurtz-like figure - survives to transmit gnomic shortwave messages. A squad is sent in to rescue a man who is assumed to have the secret of beating the fiends. Things go pear-shaped quickly in a plot that creaks a bit when considered simply as an adventure narrative. I must admit it never really engaged me.

'The Court of Midnight' sees us in the Old World, a Europe devastated by a war that may be Great. This is a parallel universe-ish tale of a refugee in a once-great city stricken by a 'lunar plague'. The plague is particularly lethal to the creative, so artists and writers are more likely to fall victim than mere commoners. There's a touch of Kafka about the plot and the style, as narrator Melchior receives messages informing him that Doctor Prozess will be personally attending him.

Finally, 'In the Complex' offers a view of the world as a kind of concentration camp-cum-sanitarium. The protagonist here is taken to a vast asylum-like building and subject to a brutal and terrifying regime. Kafka meets Clive Barker as bits of the narrator's body are removed by way of a punishment that is also a kind of surreal therapy. We end where we began, with a bleak vision of an irredeemable world.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

3 Extremes II


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A confusing title for the second in the Asian horror anthology series, in which leading directors from various countries tackle (relatively) short stories. The first 3 Extremes was a mixed bag, inevitably, but contained one undeniable - if extremely nasty - masterpiece, in the form of 'Dumplings'. Don't ask. If you've not seen it, just watch it on an empty stomach.

Because there was so much visceral horror in the first 3 Extremes I expected the second volume to be, well, extreme. So I braced myself. And I kept bracing myself all the way through. Far from being extreme horror, this is a collection of well-made horror tales. They will disappoint carnage lovers, but anyone else should find something satisfying.

First up is Kim Jee-Woon, Korean director of A Tale of Two Sisters. If you've seen the latter you know that Kim is a master of bait-and-switch weirdness. This story, 'Memories', does not disappoint. It begins with a new take on a cliched scenario - a man lying asleep on a couch in a normal living room. Except there's a creepy doll whose head twists round to look at him, and a child's balloon moves of its own accord. In the corner he sees a dark-haired woman, rocking back and forth in distress...

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Thus begins a compact yet convoluted tale of the disappearance of a wife, and her husband's quest to find her. The wife wakes up lying in the road, her phone broken, and sets off to find her family. The husband clashes with relatives and seems to be cracking up. Is the wife a ghost? What will happen when she finally gets home? The visuals have that peculiar urban bleakness that Korean directors seem to have mastered - beauty conjured from concrete.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

'Notes on the Border'

The final story in the collection The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things is, rather cunningly, not so much a story as a collection of notes that might make any number of cracking tales. It consists of a series of entries in a journal starting on 13th September 2001 and ending in the following September. Not surprisingly the author finds himself in small towns, visiting bookshops, the odd record shop, and of course historic buildings.

Along the way we learn about Mark Valentine's literary tastes. I've heard of most of the authors he mentions, read somewhat fewer of them. He is of course a Machen fan, but also an admirer of the late W.G. Sebald, somewhat less keen on Simon Raven. A 'PJB' is, I presume, the author Peter Bell, who joins Mark for some bibliophile adventures. Along the way we find the killing of the last wolf in England (allegedly), some nice pubs, and find out what a cittern is. This story-cum-essay is a tad Borgesian in its eclecticism and a very pleasant, relaxing end to the collection.

So, overall, this is a darn good book. Anyone who likes well-crafted, erudite, and unsettling fiction will not be disappointed. And well done Zagava for producing such a fine hardback, while also offering TUOAET as a nicely-priced paperback.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher.

Friday, 30 March 2018

'As Blank As the Days Yet to Be'

“The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things” by Mark Valentine (numbered edition)The penultimate story Mark Valentines The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things is a tale of the cockatrice. No, missus, really. From it I learned that a cockatrice is a hybrid cock-snake (I'm not making this up) and has gorgonesque powers to turn other living things to stone. I wasn't aware of cockatrice legends from around England, one of which involved someone lowering a mirror into its lair so it zapped itself. We are an ingenious people...

In the story the narrator sets out in search of more folklore and finds it in a small village, along with something else - the remains of an ancient turf maze. These are fascinating, not least because nobody could get lost in them.

Well, not in a conventional sense I gleaned the possibility that the young man the author meets, Anthony, is not just a helpful local but something more, and that the two walking the maze has great significance. Unfortunately I found the story baffling so I can't be sure how successful it might seem to someone who understood it.

Sunday, 25 March 2018

'Martin's Close'



Here's Alan Brown's evocative illustration for M.R. James classic tale of ghostly vengeance, which prompted me to think about the story again - as good artwork does. It's a disturbing read, but I suspect some modern folk might struggle a bit with the period dialogue in the court transcript. For me it's one of the best examples of a historical ghost story - one set in a bygone era that is expertly brought to life by the author. In Judge Jeffries James offers a very believable portrait of a real villain, acting as a kind of counterweight to George Martin, who's pretty much a broken man by the time his trial begins.

You can hear a discussion of this slightly neglected story at the excellent A Podcast to the Curious, and there a lot of useful links on the site, too.

http://www.mrjamespodcast.com/2012/06/episode-14-martins-close/


Look Ma, Top o' the World!



Okay so it wasn't No. 1 for long, but still. If Mr Spielberg is interested I'm in most evenings.

Wednesday, 21 March 2018

'The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things'

The title story in Mark Valentine's new collection from Zagava is a gentle tale of strange events on the borders of what we term normal life.

A man goes to a small rural community to curate a museum dedicated to a not-very-famous explorer. In his new home he becomes fascinated by the artefacts he now has in his care, particularly ones which bear odd carvings in what might be an unknown language. Then the narrator encounters a pleasant, eccentric woman engaged in taking rubbings in the church. It turns out that she is also trying to create a new Tarot specific to the odd Cornish village of Sancreed.

The setting of Sancreed is beautifully evoked, and the story relies on the Machenesque notion that some places are closer (in some dimension) to a higher truth than most. The revelation that the characters experience at the old 'rocket shed' on the westernmost tip of the peninsula is awesome in the old-fashioned sense, an epiphany that it may take them a lifetime to truly know. This is, in a way, a love story, emphasising that the greatest mysteries of life and time are always close at hand.

More from this running review soon. I've reached that point in the book where I slow down a bit because I don''t want to get to the end. But I'm definitely getting there, regardless...

Quatermass and the Tits


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I've just watched Lifeforce (1985) all the way through for the first time in many years. I have a few thoughts. Oh dearie me, yes.


For a start, this is a film with many real virtues. Unfortunately none of them have much to do with the script or the lead performances. Nope,  it's all down to the effects, the general production values, Tobe Hooper's solid direction, and a very good (if somewhat under-used) supporting cast. Much of the blame for this hefty box-office flop lies with Colin Wilson's original story, which - as my clickbaity title for this post hints - is wildly derivative stuff with a sweaty whiff of soft porn. Wilson's novel The Space Vampires I have not read. But if the script is any guide, it must be a doozy. But let's consider those virtues I mentioned first.

For a start, John Dyskra's space effects are rather good, especially in the opening sequence when the spacecraft Churchill approaches Halley's Comet and identifies a 150 mile-long alien spaceship lurking in the plasma fog around the nucleus. I mean, that's a good opener. They even try to add a bit of Real Science by having the Churchill (it's an Anglo-American space mission you see) powered by the Nerva rocket. Nerva was a real nuclear rocket engine researched in the early Sixties, thought it could not provide the continuous 1g thrust claimed here. Still, good try.


Saturday, 17 March 2018

New books by me

"Two new books, Dave? What a splendid chap you are, well done!"

"Gosh, yes, you're so prolific."

"Please have all our money."

Factually speaking, these books are about: changelings, 'the Good Folk', a haunted mansion, unwise ghost-hunting TV production methods, monsters, a town near the Welsh border called Machen, and other things.




'The Scarlet Door' and 'Vain Shadows Flee'

The next two stories in The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things were both published by me in ST, and are therefore brilliant. Well, okay, they're very good. 'The Scarlet Door' sees Mark Valentine in familiar territory - the world of niche collectors. In this case the narrator haunts small, cluttered bookshops in search of rare volumes. Not valuable books per se, you understand, but ones so obscure that they have never been catalogued or shelved in a library. In the eponymous scarlet volume he finds more than he bargained for. Or does he? All we can be sure of is that books are portals to strange worlds, and almost unknown books can offer routes to the strangest realms of all.

'Vain Shadows Flee' is a tribute to the late Joel Lane. Not a horror tale as such, it is a meditation on loss. In this case the loss is of Bide-y, a tramp who lived by a canal and sang 'Abide With Me', then vanished. From this apparently thin seam the author weaves a compelling picture of the margins of our increasingly shabby, callous society.

There is beauty even in decline, of course. Thus on a morning in early February: 'The stalks of grass were like white daggers, and each paving stone was an atlas of frosted glass.' One of the pleasures of this book is the high standard of the writing, which is often wryly humorous but sometimes, as in this story, sombre and elegiac in tone.

More from this running review very soon.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

'Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore'


Best title I've read in a good while, and a good story too. Mark Valentine's collection The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things has a few recurring themes. One is the torment that sensitive, thoughtful individuals must suffer in a world that is crass and indifferent. Another is loneliness, the yearning for a connection, a sense of order and belonging.

“The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things” by Mark Valentine (numbered edition)

'Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore' tackles these themes by the roundabout route of imagined  low-budget sci-fi. In the obscure film Venus Invades Us the eponymous commander was played by an actor rejoicing in the screen name of Triton. Triton put in one of those compelling performances that can raise a film to cult status. Fans materialise, while work remains sparse.

And then, as sometimes happens, Triton began to identify with his one significant role so much that he believed himself to be in touch with aliens. The only problem is that the Venusians are in fact peaceful. It's those warlike Martians you've got to watch. And so the commodore, promoting himself to admiral, envisaged a follow-up in which he leads an interplanetary armada to bring peace to the solar system. But death claims him before his project can be realised.

This could be presented as broad tragi-comedy, but instead the narrator makes it clear that Triton, deluded or not, is admirable in his devotion to peace. The envisaged sequel All Against Mars is an allegory about the struggle on Earth between love and hate, creation and destruction. Triton is in some ways the archetypal English eccentric, but his mission is not absurd. 

More from this running review soon. 


Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Ghost - Review


Antispoiler alert - Ghost by Helen Grant is not a supernatural tale. It is, however, a modern Gothic novel that anyone who likes Helen's other work will enjoy. So, having said that, what's it about?

The setting is a big, isolated house in the Scottish countryside. There live Ghost, real name Augusta, and her grandmother. Ghost knows that, beyond the dense forest that fringes the estate, World War 2 is raging. Bombs fall onto terrified civilians, war machines clash by land, sea, and air, and while the men are away fighting women are drafted into factories to make munitions.

Grandmother is protecting Ghost from a world in chaos. Grandmother sometimes goes into town for supplies, but ghost - who is seventeen - never ventures as far as the road. It is not safe.
But the great house is crumbling, and a winter storm brings down a section of roof. Grandmother calls in a builder to repair the damage, and the builder brings his teenage son, Tom. Ghost, as usual, has to hide in the attic. Nobody knows of her existence. If she is glimpsed peering out of a window she might well be a ghost. But when she sees Tom she is fascinated and, helped by chance, she establishes an indirect connection.

Then Ghost's world changes. Grandmother goes to the town, but does not return. As in many Gothic novels the secluded life of the sensitive young woman, who has never had a playmate and knows the world only from books, must end. Ghost, with Tom's help, begins to make sense of her small world, and learns more of the world beyond it. There are a series of revelations and twists, right to the end, with just about every Gothic trope deployed to good effect. And I have to admit that the ending surprised me, yet made perfect sense in the context of the novel.

Ghost has, rightly I think, been compared to the stand-alone novels of Ruth Rendell. While Helen Grant is not so coldly clinical in her treatment of her characters, she does not flinch from making hard but logical decisions about their fates. This is a compelling read, one for fans of Helen Grant's work, and a good place for new readers to start.

Monday, 12 March 2018

The Haunting Hour (2011-14)

I never read R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series of spooky tales aimed at youngsters. Sadly, I was far too old for them - or so I thought. But having seen Stine on screen, I think I might have been a bit sniffy just because they were aimed at kids.

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Oh God no! Not the clowns!

The Haunting Hour, a TV series bearing Stine's name, is available free to watch on YouTube (as well as on Amazon Prime, without ads). It's an anthology series, with 20 minute episodes offering either stand-alone or two-part stories. These were run in three - hence the title. There were four seasons in all, and while some episodes are a little flat and obvious, some are pretty good. I've seen far worse attempts at anthology series for adults in recent years.

THH is almost a Twilight Zone for kiddies, as some episodes offer science fiction rather than supernatural horror. Most, though, go for the familiar Hallowe'en tropes of the haunted house, the ghost, the vampire etc. And there's nothing wrong with that.

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Albert Steptoe - The Return!

You can find the YouTube Haunting Hour channel here. If you're feeling a bit under the weather and in the mood for relatively mild chills, this might be your cup of tea. Or, of course, if you want to find some family-friendly viewing to imbue a younger person this might just work. Some episodes come with a warning that they are not suitable for smaller children, btw.

Here is an entire episode. It's a tad more bleak than some, but gives a good idea of what's on offer.

Saturday, 10 March 2018

'The Mask of the Dead Mamilius' & 'In Cypress Shades'

Two linked stories, now, from Mark Valentine's The Uncertainty of All Earthy Things. Both feature an eccentric, intense theatre director, Robert Hobbes.

'In Cypress Shades' is told from the perspective of a producer seeking to put on a production of Milton's 'Comus', a strange masque the poet wrote in his youth. Hobbes, a finely-drawn example of the director-as-tyrant, finds a make-up artist whose work is so  good that it eliminates the need for masks in the masque. Unfortunately, as the narrator discovers, the mysterious artist's work has an enduring quality.

'The Mask of the Dead Mamilius' concerns the tragic small son of Leontes in The Winter's Tale, who dies because his father - another tyrant - falsely believes he had been cuckolded. In this short tale a young actress takes the part of Mamilius, who is required by Hobbes to haunt Leontes through to the bitter-sweet end of the drama. Unfortunately the haunting proves more than merely theatrical...

Theatrical ghost stories are often gentle, whimsical efforts, but these have a more disturbing tone. Changing faces, they warn us, is always a problematic activity, and artistry is akin to magic,

More from this running review very soon.

Friday, 9 March 2018

'Zabulo'


“The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things” by Mark Valentine (numbered edition)

'Let me commend to you the work of the Churches Conservation Trust...'

So begins Mark Valentine's tale of a gentleman who - like so many protagonists in M.R. James' stories - likes looking into churches on his travels. He finds one that seems to be in the wrong place, and in it he discovers some rather odd cards.

I never gave much thought to those hymn numbers that are seen in churches, usually stuck in a frame on a pillar near the pulpit. But, as this story makes clear, they must be printed by someone and are bound to be stored in or near the church.

But why, in this case, are there so many numbered cards? And why were so many of them printed by one 'Zabulo'. When the narrator repeats the unusual name, things happen...

This is an atmospheric vignette, one that skirts the dark waters of medieval magic, numerology, and related matters. I enjoyed it when it first appeared in the Ghosts & Scholars newsletter, and I enjoyed it the second time.

More from this running review very soon. Let me remind you that, while The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things is available as a limited edition hardback, there will also be an unlimited paperback edition for the fiscally challenged. And those who don't get review freebies, obviously.

'Goat Songs'


“The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things” by Mark Valentine (numbered edition)

Mark Valentine is probably a record collector. I offer this opinion because he pretty much nails the atmosphere of second-hand record shops in 'Goat Songs'. His narrator stumbles across - or is lured by? - an obscure album by one of those Sixties groups who were into mysticism, folklore, and mind-bending antics.


Like the previous story, 'Goat Songs' is about the enchantments that music can weave. The title refers to the album title, the group being Satyr. The climax of the story is, of course, the playing of the record. But before this we have learned that the 'hero' is a lost soul, living in a van with his record collection, often going without food so he can buy more. So when the final track on the album does not start the reader half-knows what is coming - the absolute release from the bleakly mundane that music so often promises, but so rarely delivers.

I'm making good progress with this collection and will provide more review fragments soon.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

International (Spooky) Women's Day 2

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I've just received the latest copy of the Ghosts & Scholars M.R. James Newsletter. It seems only fair to point out that it's editor, Ro Pardoe, is one of the great women of weird fiction. She does not blow her own trumpet and deserves to be better known. She is a retiring Titan (or possibly a quiet Colossus) of genre fiction, one of those people who have been busy in fandom and small press publishing for decades and brought pleasure to thousands (at least) for no material reward.

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I think it was through a dealer's catalogue that I found out about Ro's magazine (then simply Ghosts & Scholars) and subscribed to it. I also bought some of her excellent Haunted Library chapbooks. I have since met Ro and her husband Darroll on a few (far too few) occasions, and found them as pleasant and erudite in real life as they are on the page. Ro doesn't 'do' the internet, wbich might explain why she is not as well-known as other editors. But her work on M.R. James and related authors is a monument to tenacity and, yes, scholarship.

You can find out a lot more about Ro's work at the G&S website, though it has been dormant for some time.

Darrol Pardoe, Rosemary Pardoe, Ned Brooks

Here are Ro and Darroll at Seacon in 1979, long before I knew them. We all had so much more hair, then. I'm sure they won't mind me posting this pic. It's all in good fun, guys.

Guys...?

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International (Spooky) Women's Day

The ghost story was often seen as an essentially 'feminine' sub-genre in Victorian times. Genteel ladies seem to have woven ghost stories by the square mile for all those new, flourishing periodicals. But if the form was dismissed by 'serious' critics, that did not stop female writers producing some classics of the genre. Here are a few.

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'The Shadows on the Wall' by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman. A clever, psychological tale of a bereavement that casts a literal shadow over a far from happy family. It's a simple idea brilliantly executed by a very accomplished American author. 

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'The Library Window' by Margaret Oliphant. This prolific Scottish author produced more restrained and religious-toned stories. This tale of a convalescing girl confined to a bedroom is a bit more 'modern' and disturbing, though. She becomes fascinated by what is supposedly a false window in the old university library opposite. A strange man is sometimes visible in the window...

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'Don't Look Now' - Daphne Du Maurier. The film adaptation is faithful to the weirdness of the original tale, but even if you know the ending it remains shocking. The theme of a dead child haunting its parents is not uncommon, but the way Du Maurier twists the psychic sub-plot is truly strange. All of her short fiction is worth seeking out. A true original.

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'The Tower' - Marghanita Laski. Not an easy one to find, and a very short tale, but extremely effective. It's an original idea that's been copied many times since it first appeared in Lady Cynthia Asquith's Third Ghost Book 1955. It has been reprinted at least once since. No spoilers here!

And finally, here is a (somewhat dodgy VHS) version of 'Three Miles Up' by Elizabeth Jane Howard, a story based on her canal boating adventures with Big Bad Bob Aickman. 

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

'Listening to Stonehenge'

The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things by Mark Valentine is, unsurprisingly, proving to be a first-rate collection. 'Listening to Stonehenge' is a tale of an expert on classical music contracted compile a CD of British music. The problem is that the theme is monuments, and there are few - if any - suitable pieces. So begins a quest for obscure works that leads to a forgotten female composer of the inter-war years, and a piece entitled 'Stonehenge'.

This is a tale of the gig economy, interestingly enough, with our narrator making a precarious living writing sleeve notes etc for several employers. It also offers amusing insights into the world of cheap classic music publishing - the 'Glorious Britain' stuff, complete with 'Spitfire over the Cliffs of Dover' cover. It's a slight tale, but the finale, in which the expert flees a bizarre, disturbing rendition of the elusive work, has just the right touch of surreal nightmare. It's a bit Dead of Night, in fact - that's a hint, but I hope not a spoiler.

More from this running review very soon. The next one may have goats...

Perhaps I should include the list of contents while I'm about it, as the titles are so evocative.
To the Eternal One
The Key to Jerusalem
Listening to Stonehenge
Goat Songs
Zabulo
In Cypress Shades
The Mask of the Dead Mammilius
Yes, I Knew the Venusian Commodore
The Scarlet Door
Vain Shadows Flee
The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things
as blank as the days yet to be
Notes on the Border

Monday, 5 March 2018

'The Key to Jerusalem'

“The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things” by Mark Valentine (numbered edition)The second story in Mark Valentine's collection The Uncertainty of All Earthly Things keeps the reader in the Middle East. He begins by reminding us how inextricably entwined British imperial shenanigans were in the current state of the region.


A group of British army cooks in Allenby's army, which is fighting the Turks, are sent out to forage for chickens. They instead encounter the Mayor of Jerusalem, who wishes to surrender. The keys of the city are offered, and duly passed on to senior officers - but one extra key, wrapped in a scrap of paper, is given to the cook covertly by the mayor. The cook passes it to an army chaplain. The paper seems to depict a strange coat of arms...

The story is told in the form of three transcripts of interviews with the cook, the chaplain (in old age) and an expert on heraldry. The key is linked a missing order of Crusaders, it is claimed. But the man who went in search of the hidden truth is long since vanished.

There is an elusive magic in this story, reminiscent of Borges' intellectual puzzles that leave the reader feel that he's playing a game without knowing the rules. I liked it, others might not appreciate its ambiguity. But this is a story about the Middle East, and simple resolutions are not available.

More from this running review soon! I'm enjoying this book - it makes an ideal read for snowbound misanthropes.


Sunday, 4 March 2018

The Uncertainty of All Earthy Things - Running Review

A new small press publisher (to me) is Germany's Zagava, which produces limited hardback editions, but also offers unlimited paperbacks. A good policy! The first book they sent me for review is by ST regular, Machen scholar, bibliophile and all-round good egg Mark Valentine. I pinched this image from Zagava's Facebook page (see link above) which also links to its online store here.

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So here I go, reviewing a book by someone I know and like. That's pretty much how 90 per cent of 'proper' book reviewing works, of course. But various things happening lately in the rather incestuous world of small press publishing makes me digress here. I will not give something a free pass if I don't think it's good enough. If an author I know and count as a friend writes a stinker I may be unwilling to pan it, but I will not praise it to the skies.

Right, let us move on. The first story in TUOAET is 'To the Eternal One'. It's a period piece, set 'between the wars', in which a group of (somewhat) likeable con-artists travel to Palmyra. The gang have been making a good living forging title documents for people who want to be princes, archbishops etc. The trick - a clever one - is to use the titles of the old Crusader Kingdoms of the Middle East. But things get a little hot for the in England, so they go to the ancient Syrian city to attempt something more ambitious - passports to the afterlife. As the protagonist investigates the city's darker areas to glean 'authentic' artefacts and images, he begins to sense the presence of what might be The Unknown God of the Palmyrans.

This summary is very crude and perhaps misleading. If this is a horror story, it is about the horror we all feel when life is too chaotic and shoddy to be borne, but the alternative seems even worse. It is certainly a weird tale, firmly rooted in the tradition of Machen and Blackwood. There can be no easy resolutions, because deities - or things like them - are not easygoing. It is a fine start to the collection.

More soon from this running, or possibly shambling, review.

Thursday, 1 March 2018

Snowy Ghosty

It's snowing a bit in Britain and everyone is - as our American cousins put it - 'losing their shit' over a bit of bad weather in winter. A good time, then, to ponder some supernatural tales in which snow is pretty much central. Stories in which there'd be a ghostly no show if there was no snow.

1. 'The Glamour of the Snow'

Image result for algernon blackwood

Algernon Blackwood's 1912 tale of a somewhat reclusive, sensitive Englishman on holiday in Switzerland. He feels estranged from his countrymen and women, but finds a sympathetic skating partner on the rink at midnight. The mysterious female companion entrances him, until eventually he is lured out of the town and up into the Alps...



2. 'The Woman of the Saeter'

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Jerome K. Jerome's 1893 tale of cabin fever. For a legendary humorist JKJ had a fine way with weird, disturbing fiction. We're in the Alps again, this time for a folk tale. The narrative device is the familiar one of someone - a nice, sensible chap, of course - discovering some writings in an old building.
At home I should have forgotten such a tale an hour after I had heard it, but these mountain fastnesses seem strangely fit to be the last stronghold of the supernatural. The woman haunts me already. At night instead of working, I find myself listening for her tapping at the door; and yesterday an incident occurred that makes me fear for my own common sense.
3. 'The Horn'

Stephen Gallagher's tale of travellers stranded in a workmen's hut by a British motorway features - yet again - a female spirit drifting through the blizzard, luring men to their doom. This one is distinctly more violent than those Victorian/Edwardian ghosts, as befits a modern horror tale. And here the vengeful ghost has a solid motive, in marked contrast to Blackwood's nature spirit.

4. 'The Winter Ghosts'

This short 2009 novel by Kate Mosse begins with over references to Blackwood and M.R. James. Set in the French Pyrenees, it concerns an Englishman whose car goes off the road in a blizzard. He makes his way to a nearby village and is invited to take part in a traditional feast. It emerges that the distant past - that of the brutal suppression of the Cathars - is not dead and gone.

5. 'The Captain of the Pole-Star'

We're back to the realm of mysterious, scary, but fascinating female spirits for this one by Arthur Conan Doyle. The doctor of a whaling ship in the Arctic offers an account of a strange cry heard from the pack ice, and of the ghost some of the whalers claim they saw. The captain is clearly obsessed with the eerie spirit, even though it means risking his life, and those of his men...


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Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Billy Joel & H.P. Lovecraft

Yes, you read it right. Billy Joel, of 'Uptown Girl' fame, has been linked with the Sage of Providence. How? Did Mr Joel achieve pop stardom thanks to the intervention of the Great Old Ones?

No. That's just silly.

Somebody noticed that one of Lovecraft's poems is a good fit for the nice, somewhat Dylanesque tune Joel wrote for his song 'Piano Man'. So here goes...



Oh, and that's not the only one. Oh, the noxious Philistinism of this clangorous Cyclopaean epoch! And so forth. You know the routine by now.



This could be the start of a terrifying trend. Be warned.

Monday, 26 February 2018

Ghost Story Authors - Candid Snaps

Do you form an image of a writer when you read their work? I find it hard not to. I picture someone who is older or younger, cheerful or sombre, and so forth. It is a bit ridiculous to do this, because many older authors can 'write young', and a cheerful person can write intensely grim fiction. Anyway, here for your delectation are some images of ghost story/horror writers that, to my mind, don't quite go with the persona that appears in their stories.

Walter de la Mare by Lady Ottoline Morrell.jpg

Who's this rather stylish gent? Walter de la Mare, author 'All Hallows' and 'Seaton's Aunt', looking quite cheerful at what may be a garden party.

Related image

Another English gent, this one equipped with a sensible 'genial uncle' pipe. It's L. P. Hartley, author of many a disturbing tale, such as 'A Visitor from Down Under', 'Feet Foremost', and 'The Killing Bottle'.

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Looking a bit like a posher John Inman, this is in fact an author with one unquestioned classic to his name. W.W. Jacobs wrote 'The Monkey's Paw'.

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Finally, a hardworking writer who penned dozens of books for young readers but also produced some excellent weird tales for grownups. Edith Nesbit, author of 'Man Size in Marble', 'The Violet Car', and 'John Charrington's Wedding'.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

Helen Grant - Ghost



Helen Grant's story 'Silver' will be appearing the next issue of ST. Meanwhile, she has a new novel out which promises to be a spiffing read. It's published by Fledgeling Press and is set in riural Perthshire, in Scotland, where Helen lives. One Amazon reviewer likens it to Ruth Rendell's novel, which for me is the highest praise. I have my copy (bought with my own money, I'll have you know) and will tell you what I think of it in due course.
"Highly propulsive, incredibly seductive. A masterclass in how to develop intrigue and heighten tension. I loved it." CJ Skuse, author of Sweetpea






Saturday, 17 February 2018

Los Inocentes (2015)

Here is a curiosity - a Latin American film that is not only a supernatural chiller but also addresses the truly horrifying history of slavery. Los Inocentes (rather confusingly titled The Innocents in English) is set in Argentina in the 19th century. It is visually quite sumptuous - director and co-writer Mauricio Brunetti adopts a Merchant-Ivory approach to the setting, a farming estate called Mercedaria. But he also makes clear that there is no need to even scratch the surface to see the violence and fear that must always form the basis of a slave economy.

Mercedaria is owned by Guiraldes, played by the excellent veteran actor Lito Cruz. The man epitomises the brutal slave owner, raping the women and hanging a black boy, Amuda, who has unwisely befriended his disabled son, Rodrigo. Guiraldes wife is apparently a more sympathetic character. But as the story unfolds it becomes clear that she, too, capable of horrific cruelty.

The story unfolds in flashbacks, with the main action set in 1871, and the incidents that lead to the haunting taking place 15 years earlier. Put-upon Rodrigo returns to the family home with his new wife, Bianca, to try and reconcile himself to his parents. He finds his father as vile as ever, his mother apparently insane. The slaves are gone, apart from some household servants. The farm prospers, whereas when Rodrigo was sent away to school it was suffering from terrible drought. What lies behind, or beneath, these changes?

Some fairly conventional ghost story tricks and jumps occur, but with the Jamesian 'detective story' aspect. Why is the decent Bianca apparently being targeted when she loathes Guiraldes? What drove Rodrigo's mother mad? Where are the slaves? The action - leisurely at first, albeit studded with brutal outbursts - speeds up until the finale, which sees the ruin of all Guiraldes aspirations. The innocent must suffer, as the title implies, because blood calls for blood. And there is a fair amount of blood, one way and another.




Thursday, 8 February 2018

Ghost Story Petition

Here is an online petition to ask the BBC to 'commit to a full and proper revival of 'A Ghost Story for Christmas''. Will it make a difference? Well, we can try. At the moment it's got over 100 signatures. A few thousand might have a chance of swaying Auntie, I suppose. Anyway, your attention has been drawn to it, good and proper. It's the work of Calum Sherwood, and the full wording is below:
Folk horror has had a resurgence of interest in recent years. 
Numerous articles in the press (See: here, here and here) have charted the growth of interest in the folk horror genre, and it has led to the establishment of a movement of enthusiasts dedicated to its conservation and revival.

'A Ghost Story for Christmas' is often seen as one of the finest expressions of the genre in both its incarnations, during the 1970s and sporadically throughout the 2000s. The last instalment of series was broadcast in 2013. Since then, no commitment has been made by the BBC to maintain the revival of the series. 
Radio Times journalist Alison Graham wrote in December 2017: "The Christmas TV ghost-story tradition fell away a long time ago, but it should be brought back... now is the perfect time to bring back the Christmas ghost story". 
The BBC should commit to a revival of 'A Ghost Story for Christmas'. By only sporadically reviving the series, the BBC is ignoring its own central place in the history of folk horror. 
Folk horror is part of the cultural zeitgeist, and reviving 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' would be very much to the BBC's advantage - celebrating its role as one of the greatest contributors to folk horror television. 
We call on BBC programming commissioners to commit to a full and proper revival of 'A Ghost Story for Christmas' series.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Hisss (2010)


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It's not often that I review a film that has been completely disowned by its writer/director, but here we go. In this interview Jennifer Lynch (daughter of David Lynch) urges people not to watch the film she spent the best part of a year on.
“Don't see Hisss!” comes the startling reply. “It's not my movie. I shot it, but then they took it away, they cut it, edited it, scored it. It's not my movie.”
Well, that's pretty clear. When I watched Hisss (it's really hard to keep typing that extra S, by the way) I had no idea Jennifer Lynch was the daughter of the cult director. I'm not sure it matters, because the only David Lynch film Hisss resembles is Dune. It has the same bonkers attempt at a rationale, the same ramshackle structure, the same over-the-top villainy. That said, it is a far better film that Dune. I know that's like saying I'm a nicer person than Stalin, but still.


Wednesday, 31 January 2018

The Vault (2017)

I like hybrid ghost stories. What do I mean by that? Well, a story in which the ghost is not the only thing going on. The ghost isn't just haunting away like mad, but has a 'metabolism', as the late Robert Westall put it. This means there has to be a story as to why the haunting has been triggered. The Vault, a hybrid heist horror movie, is a good example of this.



The film begins with sirens as emergency services race to a fire. The fire has been set as a distraction by a gang who take over the bank with brutal efficiency. They want money, of course - but it soon becomes apparent that they are not just a regular bunch of perps out for the cash. This is a family affair, in which two estranged sisters have teamed up to try and help their hapless brother, who is in debt to some Very Bad People.

This puts an interesting moral ambiguity into the mix, and The Vault could have worked quite well as a heist movie. But, as the title implies, there's something else down there. The staff don't like to go down to the old bank vault, a distinctly underlit area of the establishment. But when it becomes clear that the cash available at ground level won't cover the debt, the sisters have no choice but to change plans. Fortunately they have some cutting gear (a nice touch, as it's central to their escape plan). So it seems that they will get the dosh after all...

But no. The vault is haunted, thanks to the horrific events that took place at the bank decades earlier. The deputy manager of the bank (James Franco with an excellent old-school moustache) tries to keep things from spiralling out of control. But, one by one, the gang members are taken out by spooks. In that sense it's a very familiar horror flick. But it's just good enough to stand apart from the slew of supernatural mass-killing movies thanks to the script, direction, and performances. As well as Franco, Taryn Manning and Francesca Eastwood excel as the very different, very feisty crim sisters.

'The Templar Cup' scoops the readers' poll

Supernatural Tales 36Congratulations to Paul Lewis, first-time contributor to ST, for his triumph in the poll for best tale in the latest issue. It's a cracking title, isn't it? And 'The Templar Cup' beat off some stiff competition from some excellent writers.

If you've not read the story yet, get ye to the links page and order a copy of ST 36 at once! And we'll say no more about your lackadaisical approach to things.


Tuesday, 30 January 2018

'Inside Out'

Ruschelle Dillon's story - the last in WHA 2 - is a grotesque horror-comedy about our shallow, narcissistic, commodified culture. Shea is desperate to lost 15 pounds to win an obscure beauty pageant, and she has to do it fast. She is referred to a Chinese restaurant, whose owner has a remarkable weight loss gimmick. Needless to say, Shea's fixation on weight loss does not bode well for her future.

While it's a bit baggy round the edge 'Inside Out' is an enjoyable story, poking fun at the world's obsession with looks at the expense of character, empathy, and indeed basic common sense. The horror element is neatly done, and the conclusion satisfyingly unpleasant. It also makes me wonder - not for the first time - about what goes on in restaurant kitchens.

And that's all from this enjoyable anthology. While a bit patchy, WHA 2 is pretty good. As well as a number of very good stories it contains an entertaining essay by Horrorella (really) on the changing status of women in the genre.

So, that's the end of a running review that has introduced me to quite a few interesting authors. More of my opinions coming soon. In the meantime, check out WHA 2 at the link above.

Monday, 29 January 2018

'Mother Love'

Alison Faye's story in WHA 2 is an interesting variation on a theme explored by - among others - Ray Bradbury.

A boy struggles to make the best of a situation in which there can be no good outcome. The style and setting are olde worlde, but there's nothing quaint or twee about the imagery. Poor little Ernest's mother has lost it, his father has gone, and the body of a baby brother is occupying a lot of his attention. Worthy gentlemen try to gain admittance to the house, but Ernest is having none of it.

There is a mad logic to it all, and the engine of the story is the way children are sometimes forced to confront situations that would defeat most adults. While relatively little happens, the overall feel is of a  dark, twisted version of one of those familiar Victorian paintings like 'The Awakening Conscience'. This one is not taken from the life, though.

So, another well-written tale from this interesting anthology, and we're nearly done. The last story is coming up!

Sunday, 21 January 2018

'Taphonomy'

There are rather a lot of dead women in WHA 2, and I suppose that's inevitable given the genre and the society it reflects.

'My heart is starting to slow. The flutter and lag of its failing burns in my chest.'

In 'Taphonomy' by Melanie Waghorne we see a murder of the sort that provides the grist to many a TV crime show, but from the victim's viewpoint. Here there is no questionable focus on the serial killer as pseudo-Byronic genius (a shopworn gimmick I am heartily sick of). Not only that, but the killing is not the end. The victim experiences the process of bodily decay, as nature reclaims her flesh, covers her bones with foliage, begins to assimilate her. It is a fascinating process, though not for the squeamish.

'My rot begins to kill the plants around me, saturated as they are in me. The maggots hatch.'

Eventually she is discovered by a dog, and this phase of her story ends. In its way, it's a beautiful, even hopeful tale. It makes for an interesting contrast with the previous tale, in tone and content. Another winner, then, in this anthology, as we approach the inevitable end.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

'The Girl in the Stairwell'


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

Victoria Dalpe's contribution to WHA 2 is a remarkably powerful vignette that genuinely blindsided your humble reviewer.

A young woman sees the body of another young woman - a stranger. The narrator is just one of a group of onlookers, and has no special knowledge of the death. But she climbs down into the stairwell to kneel next to the dead girl and indulges in an ostentatious display of grief. She also steals the dead girl's ID. When the polcie arrive she gives a bogus statement, claiming they were friends on a night out.

She then leverages her ill-gotten celebrity to have sex with an attractive man, all the while gloating/obsessing over her narcissistic antics.

All in all, it's a telling portrait of what might be termed the Trumpian society - nothing is true, all that matters is fame, self-confidence, and self-gratification. Truly a horror story for our time. And all packed into so few words. Victoria Dalpe is a very gifted writer.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Peter Wyngarde

Peter Wyngarde, whose birth place, name, and date are all disputed (1927? 1933?) was a British actor best known for his appearance in TV shows that were quite determinedly cool. He found fame as Jason King, the playboy/agent in Department S, which spawned a spinoff entitled (logically enough) Jason King. This is what he looked like...



After being repeatedly mobbed by female fans it later emerged that Wyngarde was gay. Unfortunately not entirely shocking revelation was part of a wider scandal-sheet story that marred his later career. But long before Jason King sashayed into view on Wyngarde put in an excellent performance in the 1962 film Night of the Eagle, based on Fritz Leiber's novel Conjure Wife. If you haven't seen it, it's worth seeking out this low-budget, black and white production. What it lacks in resources it makes up for in excellent casting, good direction, and a solid script.



Oh, and he also appeared (uncredited) as the ghost of the evil valet Peter Quint in The Innocents (1961). On a personal note, I thought his performance as Dracula at the Sunderland Empire in the mid-Seventies was pretty darn good, too.

Friday, 12 January 2018

'Eyes Like Kali'

Another first-rate story from WHA 2. Author Tanya Smith gives us a title with a classic, pulpy feel, heralding a modern, psychological tale of horror. Dr Chakrabarti is dozing during his shift at a psychiatric facility in the US. He dreams of an outcast girl in a filthy sari, a ghost who died in the filth of an Indian city. He wakes to a different kind of nightmare in the Danvers State Hospital, where he tries to do his job well in distinctly trying circumstances.

This is an intensely atmospheric, not to say hallucinatory, tale. The black eyes of the ghost-girl remind the doctor Kali, with her necklace of skulls. He is surrounded by dangerous mental patients, and violence erupts during his night shift. An image of a third eye - graffiti by a disturbed inmate - blends with dream images. Chakrabarti tries to type up his notes on a female patient who has hanged herself. The scent of jasmine and rain obtrudes, the smell of the city where the girl died.

I am not sure if this story has a message, other than the obvious one - that we are all haunted, and all to some extent culpable in the sufferings of others. Whatever the artistic intent it is a powerful piece.

More from this running review in due course. It's proving a wild ride so far.

Wednesday, 10 January 2018

The Art of the Spooky - Laura Makabresku





Strange stuff. You can find more eerie, weird, and sometimes nightmarish images here.