Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Tarot, Tarot, Who's Yer Spooky Friend?

Apart from the terrible 'joke' in the title, what do we have here? Only H.R. Giger's designs for the Tarot, that's all. You can see the evolutionary  link to that big scary alien.



The same article has a link to Dali's Tarot designs - I did not know about these either!

dali-tarot

Here's a video about Dali's Universal Tarot.




Tuesday, 25 July 2017

'Intruder'

The third story in Cold Iron: Ghost Stories for the 21st Century is by Kitty Fitzgerald. She's a familiar name to me, having had radio dramas produced by Radio 4. Her story is written in the present tense, giving a dramatic immediacy. Her protagonist, Polly, is a woman who has been diagnosed with cancer, and is taking a bath when a strange young man appears in her flat.

The obvious part of the story is the ghost. I don't think the author intends you to see the intruder as a normal human being. Terry is a ghost, even thought he does bring a bottle. Terry's behaviour is that of the narcissistic obsessive, a stalker type who resents the fact that Polly has never noticed him. He proceeds to lecture his hapless victim with gibberish about unconventional cancer treatments while Polly tries to think of a way to avoid being attacked by this nutter.

The ending is of course the revelation that Terry died from cancer at exactly the time he appeared in Polly's flat. Given that we know this, or something very like it, must be the ending, what are we supposed to make of the story? It's a little flimsy, as Terry is unpleasant but not very substantial. Perhaps the real message is that, if you have cancer, you have to put up with a lot of peripheral crap from stupid and/or unpleasant people.

Another instalment in this running review tomorrow, with luck!

'Support You Ever More'

The second story in Cold Iron is by Ian Harris, a new name to me. It's a good story that focuses on a key aspect of British life - the way most men (and quite a few women) feel it necessary to support football teams that aren't much cop. In Harris's story the protagonist travels a lot, and frequently attends lower league games in manky stadiums. He finds himself in one such venue on a damp November day where the only other fans nearby are a foul-mouthed ranter in the seat directly behind
him and a small boy on his own.

The atmosphere is well evoked, with its account of a game between 'two groups of low-division cloggers'. I find soccer's appeal elusive, and Harris only confirms my view that following a team - even a good one - through a never ending cycle of triumph and tragedy would be like opting into one of the lesser circle of hell. The mentality of the football fan is under scrutiny here, with the unnamed narrator contrasting the sad, lonely boy with the cursing idiot.

The author leaves it up to the reader to guess where the ghostly element might be, here. I guessed wrong, perhaps inevitably. The ending is more ambiguous, and far sadder, than I assumed. An apparently slight tale, this, but one that lingers in the mind as it sums up the bleak, self-torturing futility of compulsive fandom.

Perhaps I'll lighten up a bit for the next one!

Mark Gatiss on E.F. Benson



Interesting tie-in vid to a new collection of readings. Sounds good to me. I was surprised that Gatiss, no slouch in the horror department, should have 'discovered' Benson's spook stories after Mapp and Lucia. But life's like that, a tad unpredictable.

Monday, 24 July 2017

'The Last Checkout' by Wendy Robertson

The first story in Cold Iron is an interesting variation on what is often (rather derisively, and snobbishly) termed 'women's fiction'. Esme is a young widow who is coming to terms with the fact that the death of her unimaginative, controlling husband Maurice was not a bad thing. She gradually abandons the rigid routines he imposed upon her and starts to spread her wings a little.

One of the many things the ghastly Maurice disapproved of was Esme's friendship with a Big Issue seller - a Muslim refugee whose face has a 'closed Madonna look'. Esme's bereavement allows her to reconnect with this young woman in a peculiar way which involves an embarrassing incident in a supermarket. The theme is one of liberation, an imperfect freedom achieved despite life's injustices, great or small. The ghostly aspect is well-handled, and I admit that - despite being an old hand - it took me a few beats to realise just what was going on.

So, a good start to the anthology with this assured, humane tale. More pithy observations from yours truly soon!

Cold Iron: 21st Century Ghost Stories


Cold Iron: 21st Century Ghost StoriesA new review copy means a new running review, this time for an anthology produced here in my native North East. Iron Press, founded by Peter Mortimer, is one of those regional small presses that publishes  poetry, drama, fiction and non-fiction. Cold Iron is described thus:

A collection of seventeen ghost tales, whittled down from a total of almost 200 submitted from writers both established and unknown, bring a selection both paying homage to the tradition of the ghost story and placing it firmly in the context of our own times.

Thus, ghosts appear on football terraces, from cancer wards, on the floor of TV shows, on the late night service bus, over a Sunday dinner and at a supermarket checkout. These terrifying tales pay homage to the traditions of the genre, but tackle peculiarly 21st Century topics.


I have to admit I always feel some irritation at the notion that it takes 'proper writers' to make the ghost story an effective modern literary form. It's not as if all of us genre-hounds are just noodling around self-indulgently like an M.R. James tribute band. However, let us set that aside and consider that among the contributors here is Charles Wilkinson, who is certainly 'one of us', and whose recommendation led to me getting my hands on Cold Iron in the first place. This tells me the standard is pretty high, and I'm looking forward to seeing what Charles and the other sixteen authors have come up with. 

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Issue 35 available for Kindle folk


Supernatural Tales 35: Summer 2017 by [Longhorn, David, Grant, Helen, Joiner, Mat, Valentine, Mark, Howard, John, Alford, Andrew]

Here's the US link.

Here's the UK link.

Cover at by Sam Dawson.

Good, innit?

If by 'good' one means 'I will never go near a tree again'.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

'Warmth in the Winter'

The last story in Jordan Anderson's collection is an ambitious novella. It has overtones of Algernon Blackwood and Jack London, in that it's a tale of the snowy wilderness. It's a weird tale, but the focus is as much on the protagonist's suffering as the strange forces that besiege his isolated home.

Old Jack is a loner, a man who lost his one love in tragic circumstances and has withdrawn from the world. He bought a cabin in the wild from a man who warned him not to go outside during the darkest days of winter. The supernatural force, when it appears, is satisfyingly bizarre and menacing - a tide of blackness that sweeps down and engulfs his valley.

As the tale unfolds we learn more of Jack's background. Past and present become entangled as childhood trauma repeats itself, with variations on a theme. However, there's a strong suggestion that he finds a kind of solace at the end. Overall it's a satisfying conclusion to a somewhat uneven collection. At his best the author is very good indeed, but his work would benefit from firm editing. He has a tendency to (in my opinion) over-write and pile on too much verbiage. Cleaner lines would have made the longer tales more memorable.

And that rounds off my running review of The Things That Grow With Us. Next up comes a new collection of British ghost stories by authors from outside the field. Prepare for some forthright opinions - praise, blame, the chucking around of epithets. It's all here, folks.

Monday, 17 July 2017

RIP George and Martin

George Romero died last weekend at the age of 77. He was a true innovator, someone who - working to a very tight budget - made movies that were iconic and wildly entertaining. Night of the Living Dead rebooted the zombie movie, and made possible later hits such as The Walking Dead (1968). Before Romero the zombie was a minor horror menace, usually found in period pieces such as Hammer's enjoyably camp Plague of the Zombies. After NotLD and its quasi-sequel, Day of the Dead zombies escaped their Haitian origins and starting roaming out streets and shopping malls. Oh, and they could come into your house and get you as well.



We have also lost Matin Landau, a much-loved TV and film actor. He often appeared in genre fiction, notably the original Mission Impossible and the British sci-fi saga Space: 1999. His daughter Juliet played Drusilla, a major recurring character in Buffy and its spin-off Angel. Both had the distinctive Landau features - 'aristocratic', dark-eyed, attractive in a slightly hectic, on-the-edge way. Landau's only Oscar was in the quasi-genre movie, Ed Wood. Landau played the ageing, drug-addled Bela Lugosi.

Friday, 14 July 2017

'Angelic Tendencies'

Full disclosure - the next story in this collection is a horror-fantasy called 'Burials: The Speaking Dead'. While it's not badly written it is way outside my wheelhouse and reads like a fragment of a longer work. I didn't like it at all, so I'm moving on to something I found more to my taste. With a few qualifications.

Firstly, a general point. there is a tendency in modern horror to use child abuse as a convenient plot device. I think it is as questionable as using rape as a plot device. Now anything goes for a writer, and censorship - including self-censorship - is wrong. But I wish horror writers would find something better to say about childhood in the context of weird/supernatural fiction. After all, if every sixth or seventh story you read pivoted on a woman being raped wouldn't you think it was a bit much?

Right, ran over. 'Angelic Tendencies' is about a little girl called Abigail who survives a car crash that kills her parents. She is adopted by Aunt Cheryl and Uncle Reed. The latter sexually abuses Abigail, who prays for help. Angelic beings manifest themselves in her room and start giving her advice. But are they real, or the products of a desperate child's imagination?

This isn't bad, and the descriptions of the 'angels' is rather Machenesque, as they manifest in a benighted forest. They are like 'sagging lumpy balloons' emitting sounds like 'knuckles cracking and liquids gurgling'. Uncle Reed comes to the bad end her deserves. Then Abigail is left to her life with the monstrous, powerful beings watching over her. Is this, we are left to wonder, altogether a good thing? There's a slight X-Files vibe to the ending, when an implant is put into the back of the girl's neck.

Its an enjoyable but rather imperfect story. There's an obvious plot-hole- after Aunt Cheryl appears to take Abigail from the hospital, she disappears. There is not even a suggestion of complicity in Reed's vile behaviour - the wife simply vanishes as if the author has forgotten her. In terms of form and style the killing of Reed is over-done, dragged out at inordinate length. Too much descriptive writing bores me, especially when it gives the impression the author hasn't really figured out what his Big Bad really is. But these are quibbles - it's basically a decent story that would have benefited from firm editing.

Nearly done with The Things That Grow With Us. Fingers crossed for the final tale!

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Supernatural Tales 35

Supernatural Tales 35



Cover pic by Sam Dawson.

The print-on-demand version of the magazine is now available from Lulu.com here. It's priced at £2.95 plus postage, which doesn't seem too steep to me for what you get. Seven jolly good stories, covering every possible topic from ancient legends to weird local customs to entities from beyond our mundane realm. And then some.
'Absolute Possession' by Charles Wilkinson
'The Scarlet Door' by Mark Valentine 
'A Russian Nesting Demon' by Andrew Alford 
'The Subliminals' Pt 1. by Michael Chislett 
'To Utter Dust' by Mat Joiner ' 
The House at Twilight' by John Howard 
'Gold' by Helen Grant
The ebook version will be available on Amazon in the very near future. I will be sending out copies to contributors, reviewers, and postal subscribers very soon - please bear with me, this one has been a bit tricky to get together.


Sunday, 9 July 2017

'The Gore Hole'

The fourth story in The Things That Grow With Us by Jordan Anderson confirms my suspicion that he is much better at mainstream horror than the genre-spanning stuff (i.e. sci-fi- or fantasy-horror). 'The Gore Hole' is the story of a spooky abandoned house in small-town America, the kind of place where kids go for a dare. So of course some do. The twist is that one of the kids has been there already. He didn't exactly get the tee-shirt, either...

Young Sam and his floppy, lovable dog Isabelle visited the old house. When he is half-cajoled, half-bullied into going back he finds that in the clearing where the house once stood is a tree stump. It seems harmless enough, but then a strange force starts to exert itself. One by one the boys are forced to move up to the stump, to kneel, and to put their heads into a hole in the trunk. What happens then is lurid yet bleak. Sam's mother, we learn, warned him that it's always okay to run away from a threat. Unfortunately by the time he thinks of this sage advice it is too late.

'The Gore Hole' is somewhat over long, and it's never spelled out why what happens happens. A somewhat haphazard series of images tumble over one another, and perhaps the author over-eggs the pudding. That said, the ending is convincingly bleak. In a way this is a coming-of-age story, if one accepts that the end of childhood is the beginning of death, or perhaps death-in-life.

And on that cheery note, enjoy the rest of your weekend!

Friday, 7 July 2017

'Sand and Wine'

The Things That Grow With Us by Jordan Anderson is nothing if not diverse. From Lovecraftian space adventure and (un)heroic fantasy we move on to a small domestic tale of loneliness and imagination. 

Dani and her mother arrive at a run-down house by the sea. Mommy has a drink problem, Daddy's no longer on the scene, and Dani likes elephants because they are 'big and dopey and sweet'. The latter point becomes significant as the little girl explores the barely-remembered house while her mother gets sozzled in front of the TV. She finds a strange mirror with an elaborately decorated frame. Images of animals fascinate Dani, and then she breaks off part of the frame that happens to be a carved elephant.

It transpires that Dani is ill, perhaps terminally so. She collapses, clutching the piece of wood, and awakes to a new world. She goes outside, down to the sea. Dreams and reality merge as Dani gets her wish, while Mom sleeps on. It's a beautiful ending, on that is just ambiguous enough. This small, unpretentious tale is the best so far.

More of this runing review tomorrow, probably!

'The Tides of Oblivion'

The second story in Jordan Anderson's new collection is a very different kind of tale from the first. We move from the cosmic horrors and too-easy conventions of Lovecraftian pastiche to a quirky tale of fantasy. The setting is one of those taverns in the wasted zone between the realms of Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and Terry Pratchett. Everyone is depraved, drunk, violent, or preferably all three. Not a chartered accountant in sight. Enter a youth who seems to be out of his depth among the brutal, canny company. But is he?

This story was apparently created as a result of a challenge thrown down by the author's writing group, and it shows. The tale is rich in atmosphere but a bit short on plot and characterisation. It's very violent, full of mighty oaths of the sweary kind, and has a sort of an ending. The final image is one that stayed with me, but more from incongruity than anything else.

Okay, maybe third time's the charm! Find out tomorrow what I think of the next story in The Things That Grow With Us.

Thursday, 6 July 2017

The Things That Grow With Us - Review


Image result for jordan anderson things that grow with us

Here we go with another of my sort-of-popular running reviews! I have a lot of books lined up, in fact, so I need to be Disciplined, Efficient, and Other Unfamiliar Things. Right, let's go.

The Things That Grow With Us is a self-published collection by Jordan Anderson. Self-published can mean a lot of things. Yes, a lot of self-published stuff is terrible. But it's arguable that the next Harry Potter will be self-published simply because who in their right mind what's to go through that many rejections? I'm glad to say that TTTGWU is not by any means a bad book. It has its faults, judging from what I've read so far, but these are not so significant as its virtues. And what book is without flaw, anyway?

Right, we're in Lovecraftian territory. That's your first an final warning. The book begins with a quote from the film Event Horizon, which you may recall is about a cathedral-shaped starship that visits a kind of cosmic hell and returns with a strange cargo. The first story. 'The Further We Soar Into Madness', takes this idea as its quasi-theme, and features an epigraph from Lovecraft's 'The Festival'. And yes, there are tentacles.

The story is really two narrative threads that are interwoven, sort of. We begin with a very familiar scene, in which Edward Jamison secures a safe deposit box left by his dear old dad. Needless to say, this being Lovecraft country, the box does not contain a stash of Kruger Rands. Instead he finds a journal, and a mysterious amulet. The action then shifts back in time and far away in space, as we find out what happened when Jamison Snr. went to Europa, the icy and probably oceanic moon of Jupiter.

This is where I had a problem. I don't think the earth-based palaver with the Jamison inheritance adds anything to the story. Opening manila envelopes that have been sealed with wax and so forth seems frankly absurd in the context of a futuristic tale. It is mere window dressing of a familiar sort. Without it, admittedly, the story would just be a tale of space explorers encountering monsters. And it is, really. The scenes on Europa in which not one but several expeditions attempt to contact a Huge Thing under the icy surface are well done. But I felt that the mind-blasting horror of it all simply wasn't there. We have seen this too often to justify overblown prose.

'I seek that which man has been evolutionarily bred to fear, the darkness of alien oceans and the black behind the veils of reality'.

There's far too much of this and it doesn't really work for me.

The same can be said for the backstories of various characters. They are just not that interesting. It's as if Lovecraft spent the first quarter of At the Mountains of Madness giving biographies of the captains and first officers of his explorers' ships. He did not do this because it would have added nothing to the story bar padding. I think the tendency of Hollywood to bore us with the bios of cardboard cut-out characters has spread too far into written horror, to be honest.

That said, 'The Further We Soar Into Madness' is entertaining in spurts. It's solidly constructed, just badly cluttered and over-long.

Stay tuned for my take on the next story, which is a very different beast entirely.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Arkham Horror: The Card Game Tutorial





This looks great!



"Oh, I've drawn Driven Insane by Cosmic Blasphemies - again..."

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Dark Age Dong Denial!

Sometimes a title is just too good to overlook.

Witches Allegedly Stole Penises and Kept Them as Pets in the Middle Ages

I love that 'allegedly'. Keeps the lawyers happy, I suppose. Quote:
Kramer goes on to describe one man's quest to restore his missing member. By his account, the poor, castrated fellow "approached a certain witch" who instructed him to "climb a particular tree where there was a nest containing many members, and allowed to take any one he liked." (He was unfortunately rebuffed after trying to pick a particularly large one because "it belonged to a parish priest.")

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

'The Best Ghost Story Writer You've Never Heard Of'

Aren't titles like that irritating? But apparently you're supposed to have them because they drive Google traffic to the cybernugs of your clickertron. Or something. Anyway, the writer I'm referring to is one you probably HAVE heard of, if you like ghost stories and are well read.

Image result for david g. rowlands
The Executor - Ash-Tree Press

Image result for david g. rowlands
They Might be Ghosts - Ghost Story Press

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Carved Fruit Skulls







More here.
Russian artist Dimitri Tsykalov uses apples, eggplants, watermelons and even cabbages to create his creepy skull carvings.

Saturday, 24 June 2017

'The Last Reel'

Over at the splendid Pseudopod you can hear a reading of a story from ST #10. It's 'The Last Reel' by Lynda E. Rucker, which went on to feature in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror #18 (2007). So there. It's one of those cracking stories where people chat about movie endings, and end up facing a real life situation even more fraught than any on celluloid.

Working in a kitchen had left her inured to minor cuts and burns. ‘Let’s see what’s in the box.’
Let’s not, he wanted to say, but what came out when he followed her back to the bed was, ‘Three movies featuring a head-in-a-box. Name them.’
‘God,’ she said, ‘do you have to be so morbid? 'Seven'.’ She lifted the lid.
‘That’s one,’ he said, so he wouldn’t shout something stupid and hysterical like Don’t look inside!
‘It’s filled with photographs,’ she said. ‘'Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia'.’
‘That’s head-in-a-bag, not head-in-a-box,’ he said desperately.
‘Oh, for God’s sake. Picky, aren’t we?’ Her voice changed. ‘That’s weird.’
‘What?’
‘I don’t know how she got hold of these. It’s all pictures of me.’ 

Friday, 23 June 2017

Publicity!

Over at the 9th Story Podcast, author Helen Grant talks about writing books, and short stories, including her work for ST. She says nice things about me and my 'warped little mind', showing what an excellent judge of character she is. She discusses specific tales written for ST. That bit begins around 47 mins, but the whole interview is fascinating. Insights into a writer's life, and all that.

Helen's story 'Gold' will appear in the next issue. Here is an imaginative representation of her plumbing the depths, or something along those lines.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Iron, Cold Iron

GOLD is for the mistress - silver for the maid" -
Copper for the craftsman cunning at his trade! "
" Good! " said the Baron, sitting in his hall,
But Iron - Cold Iron - is master of them all."
Rudyard Kipling, there, proving yet again that he delivered more interesting facts per stanza than any other British poet, with the possible  except of Isidore McClunky, the Actuarial Bard of Berwick. What am I on about? Well, it's mostly down to the heat and lack of sleep, but I'm not just rambling insanely. Iron is traditionally the enemy of occult forces, far more versatile than a mere silver bullet or wooden stake. Iron sorts 'em all out - witches, fairies, the whole supernatural shebang. But why?

Well, here's an interesting essay on that very subject!
The use of lightning rods caused a furor of conflicting arguments from different factions of the Church. Some priests thought that they demonstrated the Church’s ability to control the elements in the name of God. Others argued that they demonstrated a lack of faith in the power of prayer as a form of protection. Some thought the Church was actually endorsing, and dabbling in, what may be a form of witchcraft! Some believed that their use attracted God’s wrath, causing churches to be struck by lightning much more regularly. Others thought lightning strikes occurred because they frustrated the Devil and his followers, making them lash out angrily, though ineffectually. It was claimed that lightning rods also caused earthquakes. However, it seems that bell ringers all said, ‘Thank God!'
And if you want to give it a go, my latest book - due out soon - contains a part of that Kipling quote, for occult reasons!

Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Interesting Long Reads

Over at The New Yorker we find an intriguing, very detailed item on 'The Occult Roots of Modernism'. It does that thing I like, informing me about a significant figure I'd never heard of. In this case it is a mad French bloke of the Decadent era. Yeah, what are the odds?
Péladan was born in Lyon, in 1858, into a family steeped in esoteric tendencies. His father, Louis-Adrien, was a conservative Catholic writer who tried to start a Cult of the Wound of the Left Shoulder of Our Saviour Jesus Christ. Péladan’s older brother, Adrien, was the author of a medical text proposing that the brain subsists on unused sperm that takes the form of vital fluid.
I'll just leave that there. The other article is equally thoughtful and looks at an interesting kinship between two of my favourite authors. Check out 'The Corner of Lovecraft and Ballard'. It's very detailed but rewarding, not least in its analysis of corners. Yes, those square things in rooms. I was surprised by the amount of attention they've got down the decades.
For H.P. Lovecraft the corner is a gateway to the screaming abyss of the outer cosmos; for J.G. Ballard it is a gateway to our own psyche. In Lovecraft’s universe, science was making man irrelevant, shunting us into a corner. Ballard takes the corner and turns it inside out, again making us the very center.



Monday, 19 June 2017

First Paragraphs - Stories from ST #35

You know when you do a bit of browsing in the bookshop, flip through a few pages to see what a book is about? Well, you just picked up the next issue and are about to peruse the first paras of each story. In what may become a hallowed tradition if I don't forget, here is a taster of what''s in store next month. Where the first paragraph is actually just a line I've added another para to give it a bit of context. Fasten your literary seat-belts, we're in for a wild ride.

When Bernard wasn’t concentrating, his wife Marianne bought a cottage on the Welsh Marches. Three months later, he was by himself in the half-timbered sitting-room, a stained copy of Country Life and Château-bottled Bordeaux on the side table next to his armchair. The fire flickered and died down; earlier the central heating had failed. No sounds—apart from the scraping of minute creatures in the beams. The spiders came out at midnight.

'Absolute Possession' by Charles Wilkinson

“Poetry, pornography and prophecy,” said Charles Lickerish.
“What about pottery?” said Upshaw.
“Pottery?” we both echoed, incredulously.
“Yes,” he said, “you know, crack-pottery. Always plenty of that about.”
We threw things at him. Then we acknowledged the justice of his observation. But we thought this would be largely covered by prophecy. In the end, to stop any further pleading from him, we admitted the possibility of it as a sort of honorary category, if he could bring us some examples that didn’t fit the other three.

'The Scarlet Door' by Mark Valentine

What most people thought of as Frank’s right leg did not belong to him, but to the mouse that lived inside it. From Frank’s boyhood, the mouse had peered at him through the big toenail of that alien right foot. Frank, by contrast, could see the mouse only in his dreams. Dreams of swimming underwater in the pool his father had had installed in the yard, of crawling underneath his mother’s dining room table—it didn’t matter where.

'A Russian Nesting Demon' by Andrew Alford

It was on Lant’s last encounter with Haggerston at the pleasaunce at Greenwich (a former graveyard) that the black speck, the blemish, had first entered his vision.
On descending the hill Lant had thought he spied movement in the uncut grass, a thin and slipping bit of darkness it might have been. Not the sort of thing that one would normally take note of. However, when meeting with a self-confessed necromancer like Haggerston you could never be certain of what might be about.
'The Subliminals' Pt 1. by Michael Chislett

Stephen Lake watched the demolition of one library from the roof garden of another. That felt like poor taste; also a duty. Central Library was bisected now, machine-pincers plucking at concrete, exposing wires and cavities. You could see through to the Town Hall, the stilled fountain in Chamberlain Square. As if to compensate, water-jets arced to lay the dust. Stephen closed his eyes and reshaped the ruins: a Brutalist ziggurat turned upside down. He closed the gap, spun his projection round to add the curving lobby. He sketched in the mural on the east side—birds’ heads carrying cherries, a ribbon with EVERYTHING IS POSSIBLE written in Spanish. If he stood there long enough he could add the interior, reverse the demolition…

'To Utter Dust' by Mat Joiner

Anything is possible at twilight. At least, that’s how it seems to me. The events of daylight have taken place, throwing their shadows in front of them. And night is still to come. Twilight is the uncertain borderland, the time when yearnings and desires can ebb with the afterglow or flower once more.

'The House at Twilight' by John Howard

Gold. That’s what’s in it for me.” The speaker himself had a gilded appearance: fair hair bleached almost white by the sun, tanned skin with a faint metallic sheen of perspiration. His green eyes were flecked with motes of gold, giving them an opalescent appearance, at once beautiful and cold.
Dekker knew him as Mertens, but that was probably not his original name.

'Gold' by Helen Grant


Cover illustration by Sam Dawson

Friday, 16 June 2017

'Little Black Eyes and Tiny Hands'



Coincidence is a funny old dame. I recently included Aleister Crowley in a story, and guess what? He's in this one, the last I'll be reviewing from Rebecca Lloyd's fine collection Seven Strange StoriesThe title, you may have guessed, is a somewhat unflattering description of the Great Beast himself. Here he is!

Image result for aleister crowley

I think she has a point. Anyway, the novella is set in Sicily and concerns Ernesto, a young man with ambitions to be an architect. Ernesto's granddad tells him a fragmentary story of a group of foreigners, led by Crowley (who is never named in the story), who set up house in their village just after the Great War. Crowley is here portrayed as thoroughly unpleasant, his largely female following a hapless bunch of victims.

The description of the hostile interaction of the close-knit villagers and Crowley's Thelema cult are entertaining, and utterly convincing. Lloyd has a true novelist's knack of giving depth and colour to her characters and settings. Decades later,when Ernesto is a lad in the Seventies, the 'Ghost House' where the outsiders lived is derelict, a place where school bullies force victims to go. Ernesto ends up inside and confronts what may be the ghost of the 'wickedest man in the world'.

The sup[supernatural elements in this story are woven expertly into the fabric of Ernesto's tale, as he lives a life blighted by a few minutes of terror. Eventually he has to return to Sicily for his grandfather's funeral and forces himself to confront, for the last time, the evil spirit in the haunted house. There is hope, it seems, even for those of us who feel cursed and cast adrift.

Thus ends my running review of this latest collection from Tartarus. As always the book is a lovely thing in itself. The cover illustrator is not listed, so far as I can see.. Could this vignette be the work of the author, too?

Monday, 12 June 2017

'The Monster Orgorp'

England - a country riddled with corruption, superstition, and sexual depravity. A land divided between a tiny minority of the super-rich and the vast majority of the middling-to-poor. A place where snobbery, hypocrisy, and bigotry hold sway.

Oh, I'm referring to Georgian England. Just in case you were wondering,

In this novella from Seven Strange Stories Rebecca Lloyd sets herself the difficult task of recreating an 18th century Gothic story with a modern sensibility. She avoids the obvious pitfalls of having overly-modern language and characters, but also steers clear of using too many period expressions (aka 'tushery'). As a result 'The Monster Orgorp' is almost an object lesson in how to do period fiction without making a twit, or a bore, of yourself.

The story begins with a simple country girl, Caroline Wilson, who goes into domestic service at the very dysfunctional (and of course manorial) home of Lord Mallet. Lady Mallet is estranged from the bloated debauchee she married. While he gambles, drinks, and whores far into the night, her ladyship seems to be preoccupied with more arcane matters in her wing of the house. Rumour has it among the servants that the lady is a witch. The arrival of a mysterious shrouded figure that stinks as it glides through the house sends speculation soaring - surely the Thing (as Caroline calls it) must be a familiar?

Caroline wins the favour of Lady Mallet (and, by default, the envy of the other female servants) and slowly becomes privy to more information about the Thing. There is a real Horace Walpole feel about the passages during which the foul-smelling, stunted being wafts around the great house. Then comes a plot twist that no contemporary author would have dared handle so explicitly. This leads to a revelation that shows where the truly monstrous lies.

This novella is another satisfying read, but I was slightly baffled by the title, as there seems no real reason for Caroline to dub the thing Orgorp. I tried to figure out if there was a hidden meaning, but got nothing - or is 'Progro' a pop at Rick Wakeman? Perhaps I'm just too dim, or it could be an in-joke. It was also slightly baffled by a rather long passage* on anal sex, which seemed to labour the point. I mean, we know what it is and what it can symbolise.

Nearly completed my running review! Stay tuned for the last bit.

*yes I did write 'passage' without thinking, but I'm leaving it in so there.

Bosch Parade - in tune with mad times




h/t Steve Duffy

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

'Where's the Harm?'



Oh the irony - I'm writing this the day before the UK general election. Where indeed is the harm? Well, in Rebecca Lloyd's 'strange story' the harm is to venture off the path through the woods. This fairytale stuff, of course, and this novella does partake of folklore in some its imagery and ideas.

For instance, we begin with two rival brothers, both of whom are in need of cash.They agree to do up their parents' old house and sell it, but one becomes preoccupied with the forest and its link to a childhood mystery. Why did their beautiful mother cut off all her hair one day? An old codger living nearby has a good idea, but won't tell. All he does is warn them to stay on the path and not go in search of a second house that is said to be hidden in the trees.

Needless to say one brother strays, urging the other to follow him with the words of the title. They find the mysterious house and its residents, or at least two them. Beautiful and strange women with immensely long hair appear in the clearing and prove enchanting to Eddie, the wayward brother. This leads to a trysting and a union that are as bizarre as they seem inevitable. Ross the sensible brother, is the appalled spectator.

This is an interesting novella, well-paced and genuinely odd. It seems to be set on the margins of our reality. For instance, the place where the brothers live is called Holesville Nine, a place that I doubt we can find on any Ordnance Survey map. It sounds as if it should lie somewhere between the worlds of William S. Burroughs and Arnold Palmer.

By the same token the mysterious forest women (I can't call them 'hairy women' even though it's accurate) have Star Wars-y names like Carboh and Domescia. I'm not sure if these quirky details enhance the story or make it less effective. After all the brothers are called Ross and Eddie, not Zarp and Gingloid. But perhaps the pulp sf element is not surprising, as the story's climactic image is derived from a well-known work by Catherine L. Moore.

Those quibbles aside, this is another fine piece of writing. Again we are in the countryside, and again we are quietly informed that it is not a safe place. Too much is hidden by the foliage, anything might lurk among the trees.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

'Jack Werrett,the Flood Man'

This story is an interesting example of what used to be called magical realism, and possibly still is. It might also be a case of the 'new weird' but I'm not sure what that is. The point is that Rebecca Lloyd again provides a good rural character study with a paranormal twist.

An academic rents a house from two eccentric sisters, who then insist that they move in with her. This far from ideal arrangement seems to cause bizarre aquatic activity. Water forms odd, humped puddles on stairs. Taps drip but leave no evidence of wetness. The sisters believe it's all down to the titular Jack Werrett, who in life had extraordinary powers over water. In death a dispute over the ownership of the family home has apparently led him to get a bit shirty, not to mention drippy.

This nicely-crafted story reminded me slightly of the fine and neglected A. E. Coppard. It is a little less quirky that Coppard's tales of the countryside, but has the same feel. Rural England is not merely odder than we townies imagine, but odder than we can imagine. Rebecca Lloyd has written a novel with the same title as this story, so I assume the latter is a pendant to the former, or perhaps was the grit in its oyster.

So far I've enjoyed four of the seven tales in Seven Strange Stories. Now for the novellas - might take me a bit longer to post reviews of those, but stay tuned.


Monday, 29 May 2017

'Christy'

A surprise, here, in Rebecca Lloyd's Seven Strange Stories. The previous two tales I've read and reviewed are very British in character, but now we're in rural America. I suspect the Midwest USA is intended, rather than the South. But wherever it is, somebody is playing 'Duelling Banjos' in the vicinity.

The story is told by Yola, a much-abused wife and mother, as an extended flashback to the Seventiees and the disappearance of her beloved son Earl. Earl was lamed by rickets, a condition that also afflicted Yola's only daughter. The poor girl was disposed of by her ghastly father, Daddy Hines. As a concession to his wife he does not murder his lame son. It's that kind of set up.

Earl vanished a few weeks after he starts taking about Christy. An imaginary friend? A ghost? Some combination of the two? Who- or whatever Christy is, when he touches Earl the boy is scarred by icy fingertips. Or is the whole thing a figment of Yola's imagination? Her friend Dulcie thinks so, but then Dulcie's yen for Daddy Hines makes her judgement more than a little suspect.

This is a remarkable example of a British writer attempting to riff on American Gothic conventions and almost pulling it off. I say almost because of two drawbacks. One is the presence of too many Britishisms, such as 'arse' for 'ass' - that makes no sense. And Yola's language is arguably too conventional, too devoid of specific regional words and phrases to be wholly convincing. She sounds a little too 'straight' and British at times.

That said, when 'Christy' shines - as in the descriptions of Yola's bleak existence - it shines with a clear, cold light. I was reminded of Robert Frost's poem 'A Servant to Servants', another portrayal of the rural wife's grim existence, albeit in a very different context. And in the end Yola wins most of her battles, as strong women tend to do. Daddy Hines, by contrast, suffers the fate of all hard men.

'The tattoos all over his arms and legs... have got him looking more like a grey rag than a living man now; since he's shrunk and gone flabby like the violent men all do down this way.'

So, another winner. Stay tuned for more of this running review.

Saturday, 27 May 2017

'Again'

Dipping a second time in Seven Strange Stories by Rebecca Lloyd I find myself thinking of L.P. Hartley. (Try it yourself, it's free.) 

'Again' is a tale that recalls Hartley's very British  approach to what the French call contes cruels.  If you know your Hartley, think of 'The Travelling Grave', 'The Killing Bottle', or 'The Cotillion'. 

In each of those stories we have a typical English country house setting, with guests that would not be out of place in an Evelyn Waugh novel, or perhaps Wodehouse. But what transpires is strange and disturbing, both unexpected and yet with the hideous inevitability of nightmare.

'Again' has a first person narrator, Richard, who is desperate to avoid his wife's friend Diane from making a scene. The story begins when they meet on the stairs after Richard leaves his guests to replenish the ice bucket. Diane is confused, unsure why she is in Richard's house. Gradually, as he harangues her and she expresses genuine bafflement, the grim truth is revealed.

As well as Hartley there is a touch of Poe about this one. I'll say no more than that, because it is a tale with a twist. While recognisably from the same authorial world as 'The Pantum Burden', 'Again' offers a different take on death and our responses to it. I think I'm getting to know the author a bit better, and we seem to be getting on all right.

Pop back in a while, the running review has just begun.

'The Pantun Burden'

The first tale I read in Rebecca Lloyd's Seven Strange Stories is on the margins of English folk horror. All the ingredients are there, but the story is far from formulaic or predictable. It is not so much horror, I feel, as a tale of belief and delusion. Who is deluded is not entirely certain.

An educated person - in this case a scientist conducting a firefly survey - encounters superstition and general weirdness in a small village. The cast of characters includes some odd types, such as The Chicken Man. The description of the latter's bungalow, with the inside of its windows caked with the crap of his most favoured poultry, is one that sticks with me. Good job it's not a scratch 'n' sniff book.

The Pantuns of the title are a mother and son, village outcasts thanks to a curse that they believe leads to supernatural manifestations. The way in which the narrator tries to deal with what she feels sure is an abusive relationship is realistic and not too harrowing. Lloyd's touch is just light enough to ensure suspension of disbelief, her prose elegant and graceful.

In the end 'The Pantun Burden' is a clever tale about the way all our minds play tricks on us, because we are human. Being deluded, especially by love, is part of our condition. Ghosts may be inevitable in such circumstances. Fortunately not all of us can see them.

So, a good start. Another story will be pondered a bit in due course.

Friday, 26 May 2017

Seven Strange Stories



Hark! 'Tis the cheery rapping of the friendly neighbourhood postman, delivering another review copy from Tartarus Press. Seven Strange Stories by Rebecca Lloyd looks interesting and is a beautifully made book, as you'd expect. I will be doing one of my now almost-popular 'running reviews' of these seven stories in about seven days. Fingers crossed. Lloyd is a new writer to me, so I'm coming at these tales with no preconceptions.

I should remark that these are not all short stories. Two of them are really novellas,as you can see from the TOC. What's more, one is set in the eighteenth century, which is part of an interesting trend. Once period weird fiction tended to focus on the Victorian-Edwardian era, but it's been creeping back to its Gothic roots, I suspect. Anyway, more of all that theorising anon. So thanks to Tartarus, reviewing hat on, and much reading to do!



Friday, 19 May 2017

Eloise, by Ibrahim R. Ineke



Image result for Ineke eloise

You've read my review of Ibrahim Ineke's graphic adaptation  of Machen's 'The White People', haven't you? It's just down the page a bit, if not. Eloise, or, the Realities, to give it its full title, is a longer and purely original work. Original, that is, in terms of character and story. Its central idea and treatment is very reminiscent of British folk horror TV of the Seventies.

This is no accident. In the blurb we read that Eloise is partly 'inspired by classic TV series such as Children of the Stones and The Owl Service'. I would add Penda's Fen to that list, with perhaps a dash of Nigel Kneale. From the start it's clear that Ineke's setting is that of the pre-internet era when social networks for kids consisted of old-style friendships. It was not an idyllic world, though we may remember it as such.

The story begins with Eloise's parents - who are never really more than ciphers - packing for a move. "Where's El?" asks the father. El is out in wilds, talking to what might be an imaginary friend. She asks if he/she/it can come along with her. The friend replies: "I can't. I was born here." And that sums up the story, in essence. Some can move, and change, and grow in certain ways. Some cannot.

Related image

When the family arrive in their new town Eloise sets out to explore on her bike.  She encounters a strange boy who's into reading. When she introduces herself he does not tell her his name because names 'are just instruments of control devised by adults'. Did I mention the Seventies, earlier?

The boy shows Eloise around town and they end up at a mysterious tower in the woods. Nearby lurks The Green Man, said to be some mad old tramp. But when Eloise encounters him he proves to be more erudite and friendly, and called Abe. It is the nameless boy who proves to be the stranger of the two new 'friends', and soon Eloise is crossing boundaries as she uncovers more facts - or fantasies - about her new home.

Image result for Ibrahim Ineke Eloise
Eventually Eloise is transformed in a powerful metaphor for the transition and disturbance of adolescence. It's also a cracking visual sequence of the sort old-time TV directors could only dream of. Throughout the book Ineke's stark, slightly off-kilter artwork challenges the reader to see things differently. I wish I knew more about art, but if I had to describe the style it would be 'post-pulp stark'. It is reminiscent of old-time telly in this respect, with images that are just clear enough to be intensely evocative.

So, another winner from Ineke. The world of Eloise is one I will certainly return to, in my waking and sleeping hours. But then, in a way, I was born there.

You can see a preview slideshow of Eloise here. You can buy it here.

The Sign of Ouroboros

The Sign of Ouroboros by [Longhorn, David]Exciting title, eh? Full of mystical significance, and snakey goodness.

Anyway, it's my latest book from Scare Street. It involves a mysterious cult, mass hypnosis, and sleazy but unwary men being eaten alive. So that's all the ingredients you'd expect to find in a good old-fashioned yarn.

You can find out a bit more here. It's available as an ebook and in good old fashioned processed tree. Oh, and it's the first in a three book series that just gets more bonkers and intriguing as events unfold. And I should know, I'm still writing the last one.

A list of other books by yours truly can be found here.


Monday, 15 May 2017

'The White People'

Image result for ibrahim the white people


I am the lucky recipient of not one but two review copies of weird graphic tales by Ibrahim R. Ineke. I'll be reviewing the longer book, Eloise, in a few days. But first a re-imagining of Arthur Machen's 1904 classic 'The White People'. If you haven't read it, go and do so now. 

Done that? Okay, as you probably know 'The White People' is held by many to be one of the best pieces of weird fiction in English. It's a short, superficially simple story. In a framing narrative two erudite gentlemen discuss the nature of evil. One argues that true evil is a pure as true goodness, and thus has an innocent quality. To support his case he produces a journal written by an unknown child which details her induction and training in a nameless cult.  The contrast between the simple, childish language and what is being done to her is deeply disturbing.

The story is not an obvious candidate for any of the visual arts.It depends on the reader trying to imagine what the child means by 'Aklo letters', 'Dhols' and 'Voolas'. Ineke has avoided the trap of trying to draw the unimaginable by updating and 're-imagining' the story. Now there are two children playing in the woods. They are engaged in a kind of fantasy game, and Lovecraft is invoked. Then  one of them accidentally stumbles into a 'real' world of strange, paranormal forces and beings.

ineke3.jpg


Friday, 12 May 2017

Audio Stuff

If you go here you will find some of my older readings, including stories from ST. Below is a small sample. This is a test of my incompetence with html. The story should be 'Ancient Lights' by Algernon Blackwood.




Friday, 5 May 2017

Richard Dalby 1949-2017

Richard Dalby, who died recently, was one of the most prolific and knowledgeable editors of supernatural fiction. His expertise extended beyond ghost stories, embracing children's fiction, detective literature, and book illustration. He was responsible for so many first-rate anthologies that his influence on writers and fans of these genres must have been immense. It is never easy to quantify in the influence of an editor. But I suspect that most of the people reading these words know his books. He shaped many minds and we are poorer for his departure.

On my own bookshelf I have a copy of the Ghosts and Scholars anthology, which Richard co-edited with that other great expert on ghostly fiction, Ro Pardoe. He edited two volumes of The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, The Mammoth Book of Ghost Stories, and Dracula's Brood: Neglected Vampire Classics. All are worth seeking out. I regret not getting to know Richard in person, but on the occasions I corresponded with him (he never took to email) I found him charming, informative, and helpful. Here is a brief obituary.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Trilogy of Terror (1973)

I love anthology horror movies, and I revere the great Richard Matheson. So surely a TV movie featuring not one but three Richard Matheson stories would be pretty damn good, huh?

Nope.

First aired as an ABC Movie of the week in March, 1973, Trilogy of Terror is an object lesson in the strengths and weaknesses of its format. It was intended partly as a showcase for Karen Black, who stars in each segment as a different character. If you don't know who Karen Black is, this is who she is. She's the one in the foreground. Twice. The guy in the background is, well - more later.

Trilogy of Terror Poster.jpg


Monday, 1 May 2017

Twixt (2011)

"So, how does it feel to be the bargain-basement Stephen King?"

I think I can safely say this is now what a horror writer wants to hear on a book signing tour. But it is what horror writer Hall Baltimore hears from Bobby LaGrange, sheriff in a small town with a very odd history.

It's a funny old place, Swann Valley, what with its belfry clock that has seven dials, each showing a different time. Then there's the old hotel where Edgar Allan Poe once stayed. Oh, and the colony of Goths on the other side of lake who the sheriff blames for a spate of murders. Murders in which the victim is staked through the heart. Naturally.

Bobby (a bonkers Bruce Dern) explains to Hall (a chubby, pony-tailed Val Kilmer) that he thinks the 'vampire equivalent of the electric chair' was used to kill the girl in the morgue. For good measure the sheriff has constructed a small working model of the staking machine. Hall, who's having the usual writers' problems with his wife and his agent, is persuaded to view the corpse, then encounters what seems to be the ghost of the murdered girl.

Bobby proposes to Hall that they collaborate on a book about the 'Vampire Killings' in the valley. Hall, desperately seeking inspiration, is tempted. But things start to go very wrong when he looks deeper into the town's history, gets drunk, necks a lot of pills, and encounters the ghost of Poe. And if that sounds loopy, believe me I have hardly scratched the surface of Twixt. It throws so  many cliches at the wall that some are bound to stick, and I can imagine a lot of people being annoyed and/or bored with it. And yet...

A friend recorded Twixt off the Horror Channel and suggested I watch it. Because just dove in with no preconceptions I think I enjoyed it more. For instance, I assumed that the rather decent production values were a lucky break for some clever young writer-director - a producer's vote of confidence. Imagine my surprise to see in the end credits that the film is written, directed, and produced by Francis Ford Coppola.

Twixt is one of those overlooked films, and you can see why. It is variously described as a comedy and an experimental horror thriller, which gives you some idea of how problematic it is. Conventional horror fans don't get much gore, comedy fans don't get many laughs. I enjoyed it, Not many other people did, thought. It film bombed at the box office, as they say.


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.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

Shadows

I've probably mentioned this at least once before, but it's a useful pendant to the entry on Folk Horror TV from earlier this month.

Image result for shadows tv series 1975

The Thames TV series Shadows ran from 1975-8 over three seasons. Each season had a different title sequence. You can see them here. There's a distinct whiff of folk horror about them, I feel. The stories vary in quality and of course it was low budget stuff. But the writing was often first rate. Among the authors contributing to the series were Joan Aiken, Fay Weldon, Penelope Lively, and Brian Patten. There's also an adaptation of 'The Other Window' by J.B. Priestley.

As this was a children's series the horror was fairly mild. But Shadows stands up well as an anthology series.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Liverpool

I was in Liverpool at the weekend, without a permit of course. No, I snuck into that fine city to take part in a gathering of A Ghostly Company, the literary society devote to ghost stories.

It was a lovely couple of days, not least because of the various luminaries who contributed. On Friday evening Jim Bryant talked about his research into the correspondence of M.R. James, whose handwriting is even worse than mine. Then Ro Pardoe of Ghosts & Scholars informally discussed her involvement with Jamesian fiction and the so-called 'James Gang', among other things.

On Saturday afternoon we had an excellent talk about Liverpudlian folklore from author John Reppion, followed by a reading of a story by Peter Bell - and a fine story it was, with an unusual theme and setting. There was also a book auction to raise money for the society - an event that always leaves me conflicted as I really mean to go away with fewer books than I bring. I failed, again.

Then in the evening Ramsey Campbell, our guest of honour, came along to read a new story, 'The Bill'. Classic Campbell, I thought, not least in its clever use of a commonplace event in most people's lives. No spoilers.




What is this? It's the tomb of a chap called William MacKenzie, that's what. As  you can see it's a pyramid, and rumour has it that MacKenzie was interred sitting up at a card table. This recalls Dr Rant in 'The Tractate Middoth'. John Reppion, in his talk, pointed out that this is wildly improbable, to say the least. But dead people sitting up in tombs is a recurring theme thanks to such Victorian monuments. I can think of at least two other fictional examples. One is Gilray's Ghost by John Gordon, the other is Hell House (book and film) by Richard Matheson.

Thursday, 23 March 2017

'In Eternity - Two Lines Intersect'

The last story in Written in Darkness is both an ending and a liberation. After taking us through the festering labyrinths of modern corporate culture, Mark Samuels reaches something approaching the Great Good Place. Again, there are overtones of Machen, and of the lesser-known Christian mystic author Charles Williams.

The story begins with the first-person narrator being released from some unspecified place. Doctors have advised him to gradually re-integrate himself into society. He is given pills, sessions with a psychotherapist are arranged. Eventually the nameless man finds a flat he can afford in a run-down area of London. He finds much of the previous occupants' property and comes to feel closer to the vanished scholar, Ambrose Crashaw, than he does to the living. He abandons his modern clothes for an old-fashioned suit, as well as becoming absorbed by Crashaw's collection of rare books. Crashaw's old  radio seems to receive signals from all the outworn cultures of Europe, in many languages. A neo-Gothic church nearby starts to intrigue him, especially when an unearthly light shines from one of its high windows.

This story recaptures some of the awe-inspiring quality in supernatural fiction published around a hundred years ago. There is a touch of Algernon Blackwood in the way that the old radio eventually tunes in to the trees, London's last forests. There is also a reference to Turner, painter of light who was also a mystical poet. The narrator's dreams seem more real than his mundane existence, and he finds physical evidence of this - the page of an unknown book, a chess piece.

The revelation of Ambrose Crashaw's true fate coincides with the discovery of a precious truth, and the story ends with a vision of unity, of broken things made whole and the fallen lifted up. In a way it is the ultimate anti-twist ending,  to tell us that all can be well after fall, despite everything we know and have gone through.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

'My Heretical Existence'

This compact tale starts with a fascinating premise - that there are 'tribes' who never leave certain narrow areas of major cities, and never marry out. Mark Samuels' narrator hears of one such extended family in Sartor Street (a nod towards Thomas Carlyle, perhaps, a sort of heretic?). He is also infatuated with a young woman called Adela who goes to a pub near Sartor Street. He never dares approach her, simply getting drunk in her presence. Then one night he goes off in a random direction and finds himself in unknown territory. He finds a pub, 'The Hourglass Stilled', but when he enters he discovers a clientele far from welcoming.
I could hear the creak of wooden sinews, the flexing of wooden muscles, and the grinding of wooden teeth. Their faces were painted garishly in a motley attempt to convey the human, but oh, the deadly lifelessness of their expressions! Their glass eyes were without lustre, like grey flowers.

Inevitably, Adela is one of the mannequins. Blackout. Our narrator recovers in hospital, and is informed that there is no such place as Sartor Street. Yet he seems to be suffering from a strange ailment that leads to a stiffening of the limbs...

This is fine example of urban horror, with echoes of Fritz Leiber as well as Ligotti and, perhaps, Machen. I'm not quite sure what is 'heretical' about it, but titles are tricky.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

'Outside Interference'

We're back in the ghastly world of modern corporate life. One thing one can't accuse Mark Samuels of avoiding is a unifying theme. Written in Darkness is saying, to coin a phrase, that modern life is rubbish, and fetid rubbish at that. Admittedly he is not presenting any kind of alternative to our interconnected global culture, but it is a not a fiction writer's job to present manifestos. He calls 'em as he sees 'em,

'Outside Interference' is set in a bleak office building somewhere in central/eastern Europe. Not just any old bleak office building, but one being phased out by a crew of soon-to-redundant workers. A viciously cold winter closes in as the hapless crew struggle to shift junk from unheated offices. Things start to go wrong when the lift malfunctions and a member of the team is turned into a kind of zombie (thought the Z-word is never used).

With frantic inevitability attempts to escape or confront the menace that lurks below sub-basement level fail. And then the discarded, the unwanted, the human detritus of modern capitalism, are transformed. The shadows of Ligotti and, arguably, the late Joel Lane fall across this wintry mindscape. I have no idea if the ending is supposed to be downbeat in the strict sense of the word.

In our running review tomorrow a different theme emerges as everyone marches through the factory gates to a stirring rendition of 'Sing As We Go' by Gracie Fields.

No, not really.

Small Screen Folk Horror

King of the Castle: The Complete Series
A tower block harbours mystical secrets

Over here you can see a list of Seventies folk horror TV shows. Folk horror is a somewhat flexible term, but I think the list includes enough examples to give anyone a pretty good idea. We're talking about deep history, mythology, a sense of the past bearing down on the present and shaping it. Throw in demonic, ghostly, or otherwise paranormal phenomena, and you're on the way.

Raven (1977)
Raven

I remember a few of the shows listed, as a Seventies teenage telly viewer. Children of the Stones, Doctor Who - Image of the Fendahl, and the one-off Christmas ghost story 'Stigma' caught my attention. I don't remember the ITV shows King of the Castle or Raven, perhaps because were very much a BBC household. 'A Photograph' in the Play for Today strand is also a new one on me, and it's available to watch on YouTube.

Doctor Who: Image of the Fendahl (1977)
Image of the Fendahl

It's interesting to note that Nigel Kneale's Quatermass finale, also made by ITV, had strong folk horror elements. It was all about stone circles and a hippie back-to-nature cult with sinister undertones. However, the overall feel of the show is dystopian sci-fi, so perhaps it's a marginal example.

Monday, 20 March 2017

'My World Has No Memories'

After an 'old dark house by the graveyard' story, another favourite sub-genre gets an outing in Written in Darkness. This time it's the nautical weird tale, exemplified by authors as diverse as Lovecraft, Hodgson, and Conan Doyle.

Mark Samuels' take on the idea is to have his protagonist wake up in the cabin of a sailing vessel. The first person narrator has no memories, and finds himself unable to contact anyone via radio. The GPS is not working either. But there is an odd marine entity in a jar in the cabin. A thing like 'a monstrous flower the size of a grapefruit'. A whiff of the entity's odour conjures strange visions.

The narrator speculates that he set out on this yacht alone to avoid some global cataclysm. This might explain the failure of all technology. But the thing in the jar bothers him, especially as it seems to be trying to communicate telepathically in a way that threaten's the seafarer's sanity. So he throws it overboard. And it comes back. Then bloated human corpses start rising from the deep. Not just any old corpses, either. The narrator has seen that rotting face before, in the mirror.

As you'll have gathered, this is another tale of abject nihilism. The finale does not see the narrator finding himself in Plymouth and getting home in time for tea. Again, then, Samuels insists on the essential inhumanity of the universe, and the inability of a 'normal' man to cope with cosmic reality.

Sleep tight. More soon.


Sunday, 19 March 2017

'Alistair'

Here we are, halfway through Mark Samuels' Written in Darkness and we have our first 'traditional' tale of the supernatural. Well, sort of. It begins with a fine description of Gryme House in Highgate, the ancestral home of Amelia Grymes. Her husband, James, moves into the old house with his wife and small son, Alistair, when Amelia's grandparents die.

James Thorpe is a failed novelist who has moved into biography, and his choices of subjects are interesting: Thomas de Quincey, Anna Kavan, and Count Stenbock. All are in some ways marginal figures who produced interesting work on the margins of major literary movements. Perhaps this is where Samuels sees himself?

Strange things happen at Gryme House, events linked to the overgrown West End of nearby Highgate Cemetery. Alistair goes sleepwalking in his Scooby Doo pyjamas, and has night terrors that only Amelia can quell. James, like many fathers, feels inadequate and somewhat remote from his son. But he is also disturbed by the way Amelia seems to talk to Alistair in an unknown tongue - one that sounds like no human language.

The story consists of three sections, each progressively stranger. There is a touch of Lovecraft in the bizarre ending, which presages a very bad breakup for poor old James. Just as the previous stories reveal politics and business as rotten with cosmic corruption, so family life is here shown to be a grim facade. While a relatively slight tale, 'Alistair' stays in the mind perhaps because it is so economical and unsentimental.

Thursday, 16 March 2017

'The Ruins of Reality'

The fourth story in Mark Samuels' collection Written in Darkness is so bleak it's almost funny. It begins with an account of an economic recession that threatens to bring down Western civilisation, and the appearance of something called the N Factory. The new factory system promises fulfilling employment, but I don't think the reader is supposed to be fooled by that for a minute.

The odd thing is that mass unemployment is not, really, the major problem now - though of course it could be in future. What people are really unhappy about is that so many of those in work are struggling. Perhaps that is too complex a crisis? Because 'The Ruins of Reality' takes a very simple, straight line between the idea of old-school Depression-era poverty and yet another Ligottian take on the futility of existence. A Ligotti collection is even name-checked - the factory is managed by 'Dead Dreamers'.

The story is a kind of prose-poem to misery, ugliness, and despair. It transcends conventional dystopian fiction because the crushing of humanity's hopes leads to a collapse in the natural order. There are parallels with Lovecraft's 'Nyarlathotep', here. A black aurora dominates the sky as a permanent winter grips the globe, and some form of unidentifiable radiation sickness strikes down millions. The N Factory has possibly liberated the dreams of the masses, allowing them to influence reality. It is a 'cosmic blight'.

I am beginning to doubt whether this book contains any whimsical ghost stories about Edwardian gentlemen scholars.