Sunday, 17 March 2019

The Living Grave

Leap in the Dark: The Living Grave by David Rudkin
'The Living Grave' was made for 'Leap in the Dark' a TV series with supernatural themes throughout the 1970s and into 1980 that featured stories that were a mix of fact and fiction.  This episode from 9th Sep 1980 was written by David Rudkin (of Penda's Fen fame) and is based on the legend of 'Jay's Grave' (also 'Kitty Jay's Grave') on Dartmoor that legend says is the last resting place of someone who had died by suicide where fresh yellow flowers are mysteriously laid by unknown hand every morning.

Rudkin's approach, as would be expected from anyone familiar with his work, is anything but typical.  He makes no real attempt to examine, explore or explain the legend an instead bases his narrative around the 'memories' of a nurse regressed through hypnosis which he intersperses with a tour of the locale by both an investigator and through the eyes of Kitty herself as she approaches her end.

Leap in the Dark: The Living Grave by David Rudkin
It's a bit of an oddity and stylistically feels very much of it's time but that's no bad thing as shows (and writers) as narratively uncompromising as this are few and far between and whilst this isn't, perhaps, Rudkin in full flight it's certainly a very watchable example of his work and an intriguing take on the retelling of a folktale.

BTW - You can find another episode from 'Leap in the Dark' in the form of Alan Garner's 'To Kill a King' here.



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Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Haunted Woman


Lindsay is now a recognisable name in classic sci-fi circles for his book 'A Voyage to Arcturus' which at the time of release sank almost without trace and was only posthumously acclaimed but having just read 'The Haunted Woman' I'm left wondering if this book also needs it's moment in the sun.

The story centres around Isbel Loment who, with her aunt, Mrs Moor, lives a nomadic and fairly meaningless existence moving from hotel to hotel.  Whilst in Brighton, and through Isbel's fiance Marshall they discover the availability of a house into which Mrs Moor might settle upon Isbel's marriage.

The house, owned by a widower named Judge has a secret,  a staircase, visible only to some that leads to three rooms.  The first room contains a mirror, the second a sofa and the third a window through which can be seen a view of an idyllic valley in which sits a musician playing an unfamiliar instrument.  The first room allows Isbel to see her true self, the second provides an environment where social masks can be dropped and truer nature's expressed and the third almost forcibly strips them of their reservations presenting them with the full expression of their deeper feelings away from the confines of everyday society.

The social mores of their everyday world seem archaic and even at the time we.re probably a little old hat but as an examination of the ways in which conventions govern our lives and the ways in which we surrender to them as seen in Isbel and Judge's amnesia upon descending the stairs as they are literally forgetting themselves which seems, at least for Lindsay, to be eminently preferable to the alternative.

Perhaps Lindsay's own fear of emotional commitment lies at the heart of the book's bleak ending or perhaps it's a comment on the wisdom of fully revealing ones true self as then you'll see the terrifying other self.

Whatever the truth of it it's an undeniably powerful and twisted end to a fascinating read

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Friday, 1 March 2019

Tales of Horror and the Supernatural

Arthur Machen

The copy of this collection that I've just emerged from is the two part paperback edition published by Panther Paperbacks in the mid 1970s that reprints the 1960s collection of the same name (also published more recently by Tartarus Press).

Volume 1 contains the real classics - 'The Great God Pan', 'The White People', 'The Inmost Light', 'The Shining Pyramid' and 'The Great Return'  - all of which I've read either several times over or quite recently.  Volume 2 has it's share of well known Machen's also with 'The Bowmen' and the two longer tales from 'The Three Imposters' - 'The Novel of the Black Seal' and 'The Novel of the White Powder'  - but these are followed by some later and less well known - at least to me - stories, some of which I've read but am very happy to do so again.

Stories such as 'The Happy Children' with it's revenant celebrating kiddies and the mysterious deaths of 'The Terror'; the latter a much more developed tale than the former but both equally as powerful in their telling.  Also included is the prototype for 'The Green Round', 'Out of the Earth' which is an interesting if perhaps inessential story especially if you are familiar with it's bigger brother.

'The Bright Boy' is the oddity here. A slightly incoherent and silly tale tale of corrupt individuals and overly elaborate schemes has little to recommend it.  Better - much better - but still a little unsatisfying is 'The Children of the Pool' where Machen sets up an intriguing and uncomfortable rural horror which he then allows to peter out amidst a host of rationalisations.

The big draw for me was the presence of the story that's been described as the gem of Machen's later work.  'N' is an almost psychedelic story of alternate realms and the thin place in a drab London suburb where an unearthly garden is visible to some of it's inhabitants.  It's a delight and offers another welcome glimpse of Machen's explorations of world's parallel to our own.

On it's own volume 2 proved to be a fantastic read but in conjunction with the first as originally intended it is a thing of sublime wonder.

Buy it here -  Tales of Horror and the Supernatural

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Sunday, 24 February 2019

The Intercessor

Shades of Darkness The Intercessor
'The Intercessor' was originally written by May Sinclair and published in 1931 in her second collection of supernatural stories called, funnily enough, 'The Intercessor and Other Stories'.  Sinclair is a neglected figure in the history of spooky stories and unjustly so as her stories have a gentleness and a subtlety that is often less pronounced in the work of her contemporaries and core characters that reflect her non literary work as a campaigner for women's and worker's rights.

In 'The Intercessor' a writer, Mr Garvin (John Duttine ('Day of the Triffids)) seeking refuge from the noisy kids in town seeks refuge by relocating to the spare room of the Falshaw's remote farmhouse where he finds a childlike distraction of a very different kind.  As the story progresses he becomes embroiled in a family history rife with betrayal, bitterness and death and resolves to heal the rifts.

Shades of Darkness The Intercessor John Duttine
Made for the mid 80s series 'Shades of Darkness', which also included adaptations of stories by Walter de la Mare (watch 'Seaton's Aunt' here), Agatha Christie, Elizabeth Bowen and Edith Wharton, 'The Intercessor' is, almost, as much a family drama as it is a ghost story and in it's limited run time makes the most of both aspects.  The ghostly presence at the heart of the film is refreshingly non-malevolent but the vaguely hallucinatory nature of her appearances is handled fantastically well.

'The Intercessor' is a tale of resentment, loss, madness and redemption filled with great performances from all involved in a very satisfying, coherent and just simply lovely story that, like it's author, deserves to be much better known.



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Thursday, 21 February 2019

Herald of the Hidden

Mark Valentine
Tartarus Press

What is the secret of the house of days? Who are the shadowy figures gathered along an old green road? What is the winged thing seen flitting from an ancient church?

Herald of the Hidden collects ten adventures of the occult detective Ralph Tyler, inspired by William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder, Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence, and Arthur Machen’s Mr Dyson of The Three Impostors.
But Ralph Tyler is different. He is without private means, or any special esoteric knowledge. Sometimes he doesn’t play fair with his clients or his friend, the narrator. He smokes foul cigarettes, slumps in his chair, and wears a threadbare jacket. And he’s from an obscure shire in the darkest heart of England . . .
Mark Valentine’s Ralph Tyler stories first appeared in hard-to-find small press publications. Three of the stories in this volume are previously unpublished, including two newly written for this collection. Along with six further supernatural tales, all the stories are previously uncollected in book form.

The bulk of this collection consists of Mark's early experiments with the supernatural detective genre.  I'm a huge fan of Mark's other detective tales (written with John Howard) featuring the Connoisseur which are intense, artful and gloriously inventive and I've gone back to them several times over the years.  These earlier stories follow the standard setup of a chronicler and a detective, here called Ralph Tyler, a shambolic everyman who lives in scruffy digs and smokes foul smelling cigarettes.  He's a deliberate shift away from the gentleman adventurer type of sleuth, the man of means that can afford to go off spook hunting such as Algernon Blackwood's 'Dr John Silence', William Hope Hodgson's 'Carnacki' or even Arthur Machen's 'Mr Dyson'.  Tyler works for hire but does so in a way that satisfies his own conscience.

The stories flirt with themes that would come to define Mark's later work with the intrusion of other realms and the hidden histories of the countries of Britain.  The stories here are a little more overt and perhaps muscular than I was expecting but that's perhaps down to youthful verve and whilst many of these stories could be  - crassly - defined as folk horror Mark is - and apparently always was - too good a writer to fall down that particular rabbit hole and his stories embrace a far wider palette of influence than is often the case.

The book ends with several non Rex Tyler stories that date from a similar time.  They are a more delicate affair showing Mark's love of Edwardian ghostly and weird fiction with ghostly cricket matches, artistic vision, dark magic and pastoral pagan traditions.

As can probably be inferred from his repeated appearances in these pages I adore Mark's writing.  He draws from a heritage of writers that I find fascinating and marries it with a lively imagination, a curious nature and a writing style that embraces both the then and the now to produce stories that feel timeless.

Buy it here - Herald of the Hidden

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Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Glimpses of the Unknown

Glimpses of the Unknown mike ashley british library
Mike Ashley (ed)
British Library

A figure emerges from a painting to pursue a bitter vengeance; the last transmission of a dying man haunts the airwaves, seeking to reveal his murderer; a treasure hunt disturbs an ancient presence in the silence of a lost tomb.
From the vaults of the British Library comes a new anthology celebrating the best works of forgotten, never since republished, supernatural fiction from the early 20th century. Waiting within are malevolent spirits eager to possess the living and mysterious spectral guardians—a diverse host of phantoms exhumed from the rare pages of literary magazines and newspaper serials to thrill once more.

Over the last couple of months the British Library has begun publishing a veritable treasure trove of strange macabre and outre fiction from it's vaults with collections featuring the work of such luminaries as Walter de la Mare and M.R. James alongside less well known writers like Charlotte Riddell.  This particular collection celebrates the forgotten and the unloved as anthologist supreme Mike Ashley here presents eighteen previously unreprinted tales from the golden age of ghostly fiction (1890 - 1920) including a previously lost story by E.F. Benson.  It has to be said upfront that there are no unrecognised classics of the genre here but there are very few stinkers, a couple of pretty nifty ones and a host of readable ones.

The book begins strongly with Hugh E. Wright's 'On The Embankment' an enjoyably creepy, if a tad moralistic, story of a ghostly tramp which is followed by an unusually haunted house in 'Mystery of the Gables' that gives author Elsie Norris what feels like a very modern sensibility.

The welcome strangeness of 'Phantom Death' by pseudonymous Huan Mee is sandwiched by two of the books absolute stinkers before it once again finds it's feet with a poignant tale of obsession and redemption in 'The soul of Maddalina Tonelli' by James Bar one of several authors here I'd like to read more by.

Jack Edwards' 'Haunted' is a nifty piece of weird fiction about a man haunted by an amorphous spectral presence before crime writer Percy James Brebner gives a slightly more traditional ghostly tale with one foot in it's author's preferred genre.

E.F. Benson
E.F. Benson
The next two contributions both take a more melancholy path as love proves death is no barrier in Guy Thornes sentimental but lovely 'A Regent of Love Rhymes' and that love sometimes comes too late in 'Amid the Trees' by Francis Xavier.

Neither Mary Schultze's 'The River's Edge' with it's overtly and overly religious tale of a ghostly rescue nor Mary Reynolds' anticlimactic 'A Futile Ghost' provide much of a distraction but Lumley Deakin's 'Ghosts' with it's enigmatic central character 'Cyrus Sabinette' proved to be possibly the gem of the book and I'd love to read more of the rest of the series of stories he wrote featuring the character.

The book's sole US contributor, Elizabeth Jordon, is represented by her story 'Kearney' that tells of an accidental if impetuous shooting that leaves a young military man haunted by his victim whilst Philippa Forest provides a Holmesian tale of murder albeit one with a ghostly heart.

Eric Purves' 'The House of the Black Evil' is an oddly affecting piece of weirdness with a slightly week ending but an interesting premise that for some reason reminded me of Hope Hodgson's 'Carnacki' stories.  Following this is the aforementioned lost E.F.Benson story, 'The Woman in the Veil', it's not great.  What it is is a perfectly functional but slightly tired story of ghostly comeuppance of the type we've already seen in the Brebner story before the book ends with a fantastical adventure tale of ancient dead and elemental forces that feels both an odd fit with the rest of the rest of the book and a strange place to end.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this write up Ashley is a seasoned pro at this anthology curating lark and with the aid of the British Library has compiled a fine collection weighted heavily to the good with only a few unsatisfying or dubious moments.  This is only one book in what appears to be an ongoing series under the umbrella title of 'British Library Tales of the Weird' that looks to be a very fine selection indeed.

Buy it here - Glimpses of the Unknown: Lost Ghost Stories (Tales of the Weird)

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Monday, 11 February 2019

The Loney

Andrew Michael Hurley
John Murray / Tartarus Press

"If it had another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney - that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest.
It was impossible to truly know the place. It changed with each influx and retreat, and the neap tides would reveal the skeletons of those who thought they could escape its insidious currents. No one ever went near the water. No one apart from us, that is.
I suppose I always knew that what happened there wouldn't stay hidden for ever, no matter how much I wanted it to. No matter how hard I tried to forget...."

I first started reading this a few months back and got about 90 pages in before I realised that I just wasn't into it and shelved it.  I've now had the impulse to finish it and whilst I enjoyed it and there's much to recommend in it's pages I'm not entirely sure I entirely understand what all the fuss was about.

The Loney is a place, a barren, unloved seaside parish where a small group of Catholics base themselves whilst visiting a local shrine in order to pray for the healing of an autistic child.

At the centre of the story is the younger child of a deeply religious mother, 'Mummer', and a pious but more grounded 'Farther' who is very much his brothers keeper; waking him, dressing him, entertaining him and generally being his protector.


The story trips back and forth through time telling an interwoven story set in current time and at two points in the early 1970s.  The main narrative follows the groups final visit to the Loney and the inexplicable events that seemingly trigger a profound change in everyone's circumstances.

Hurley plays with much of the trappings of the gothic novel  and can conjure a good turn of phrase when it comes to describing the bleak landscapes of a wet Easter in Lancashire.  His characters are eccentric and the tale told is mysterious and macabre even at it's conclusion.  I did however find the whole thing occasionally a little flat and a teeny bit frustrating.  I can live without having my books all tied up with a little bow but I do like to have enough clues to speculate upon and here we're provided with some leaden Dennis Wheatley style satanic shenanigans, a touch of folk horror style effigy bothering and a mix of local yokel and gangster villainy that made for confusing bedfellows.  In the end I found myself reading - and mostly enjoying - whilst wishing there had been just a little something more.

Buy it here - The Loney

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Sunday, 10 February 2019

Krull

Throughout the 1980s there was a surge in fantasy cinema with a constant stream of both low and high budget hack and slash movies appearing, some with more ideas than budget and some very much the opposite.  Billboards and video store shelves were groaning with images of hunky men holding aloft various swords, axes or glaives. From Hawk the Slayer to Dragonslayer, Dark Crystal to Deathstalker, Yor the Hunter From the Future to Conan the Barbarian this craze kept makers of woolly loincloths and longswords pretty busy.  Britain with it's landscape of castles was always keen to get in on the action and - often with backing from elsewhere - produced some fine entrants into the genre (the first three of those listed above were filmed in the UK).

One of the most fondly remembered entrants was the 1983 science fantasy escapade, 'Krull'. Made on a massive $30 million budget Krull is a giant, glorious mess of a movie.

The arrival of 'The Beast' in his space travelling mountain and his kidnapping of Princess Lyssa (Lysette Anthony) spurs the formation of an unlikely band of heroes led by Prince Colwyn (Kenneth Marshall) that includes the likes of Liam Neeson, Robbie Coltrane, Freddie Jones, Bernard Bresslaw and Todd Carty.

Despite it's budget and it's sprawling scope 'Krull' manages to be a fairly low-key sort of thing with it's roots in the Arthur myth, it's head in the Star Wars and it's feet firmly in the walk and talk heritage of Lord of the Rings but director Peter Yates singularly fails to build any sort of satisfying action sequence with the final showdown between Colwyn and The Beast where the fabled 'glaive' is finally used being particularly anti-climactic.  But that aside this is a movie I first saw when I was a young fella with a then burgeoning love of all things sword and sorcery and a well established fondness for science fiction and so to see them brought unapologetically together like here was a real treat.

Buy it here - Krull [DVD] [1983] - or watch it below.


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Thursday, 7 February 2019

3 Wyrd Things: R.B. Russell

For '3 Wyrd Things' I asked various creative types whose work I admire to tell us about three oddly, wonderfully, weirdly British things that have been an influence on them and their work - a book or author, a film or TV show and a song, album or musician.

R.B. Russell
The site of the haunted house, Copsford (photo: Tim Parker Russell)
This month: Raymond Russell

Ray is an author, musician, film-maker and publisher based out of Yorkshire where he and partner Rosalie Parker run Tartarus Press publishing classic and contemporary fiction by authors such as Arthur Machen, M. P. Shiel, Oliver Onions, Sarban, Robert Aickman, Andrew Michael Hurley, Mark Valentine and Reggie Oliver.

Ray's writing has been published by Ex Occidente Press, Swan River Press, PS Publishing and others and his music released through labels such as Austria's Klanggalerie.

Regular readers of Wyrd Britain will know that we are big fans of both Tartarus Press and many of the authors they feature / champion and are honoured to have this opportunity to feature Ray's choices on our site.


Book
Walter J.C. Murray - Copsford
(Buy it here)
I grew up on Chiddingly Road in Horam, East Sussex, in an old tile-hung Wealden farmhouse, surrounded by woods and fields that were the backdrop to games and adventures undertaken on my own or with friends. When younger we played at being second world war commandos deep in enemy territory, or Star Wars fighter pilots flying between the trees on alien planets. In later years I read Machen and Poe in quiet corners of fields and even up trees, and I sometimes took my own writing out with me - poetry and short stories that ended up in school magazines. It was a beautiful, haunted countryside, with an added frisson because wandering too far meant that I didn’t always know whose land I was trespassing on.

Copsford - Walter J. C. Murray - Tartarus Press
My father had explored the same fields a generation before me, and often talked about a haunted house that I was never able to find on my explorations (and so I never believed him!) But ten years ago he asked me to find a book called Copsford by Walter J.C. Murray. It is the true story of a young man in 1920 who rents a derelict cottage in Horam with the aim of collecting and drying herbs to sell. The cottage, which he finds at first unwelcoming, even malevolent, was the haunted house my father had once known, and the fields and woods that Murray ranged over were ones we both recognised. It is book with drama and beauty, and a deep understanding of the countryside and its wildlife. It was a delight to see Mark Valentine discover it and blog about the book recently (here). And after a great deal of searching I have finally managed to track down the estate of the author and a new edition will be along in the near future.

And it's even been inspiring some music:




Music
Cocteau Twins - Garlands
(Buy it here)
In 1983, as a world-weary sixteen year old, I took my sister to see Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark at the Brighton Centre on the Dazzle Ships tour. But, before they played, a scruffy-looking couple shambled on stage with a reel-to reel tape player and struck up the most unearthly sound. My sister was mortified that between songs I clapped, cheered and shouted my approval (everyone around us seemed unimpressed.) The duo were called the Cocteau Twins and they played an astounding set of weird, primal, beautiful songs. OMD put on a decent show (with semaphore!), but I didn’t get into Dazzle Ships until some years later. At the time they seemed commonplace in comparison to the Cocteau Twins.

The following weekend I bought the Cocteau Twins album, Garlands, and their two singles. Listening to them today I can hear all of the various influences on their sound, but for me it evokes the time and place in which I played the music non-stop. It brings back to me the fields at twilight, when the woods suddenly seemed unnaturally dark and utterly different to the daytime, when landmarks are lost and distances distort. As Elizabeth Fraser sings ‘Grail overfloweth…’ and ‘The earth as we know it…’ I am reminded of the strange books I had been reading until the light had failed, and I had been forced to find my way home.




the Moon and the Sledgehammer
Film
The Moon and the Sledgehammer
(Buy it here)
I loved moving to Sheffield to go to University—it was utterly different from what I had been used to in the Sussex countryside, but my childhood was brought back to me one night in 1986 in a way that I failed to understand for several years. Returning late from some event in the city centre, I tuned-in to a film or documentary on Channel Four about a dysfunctional family living in a wood where they repaired and rebuilt traction engines. It was beautifully shot, elegiac even, but at the heart of the story something was obviously very wrong. I couldn’t understand when it had been made, or where, but I had the uncanny feeling that I knew these people.

I woke up my housemate, Mark Johnson, and told him he had to come and watch a remarkable piece of television. The family in the film were somehow set apart from the modern world, and in certain respects they appeared ignorant of it. But it seemed to raise more questions than it answered, and I was unable to find anything out about it, despite research at the Polytechnic’s film library.

And then, twenty four years later, in 2010 my parents told me they had seen a DVD called The Moon and the Sledgehammer, and that it might interest me. It was my Channel Four film from 1986 and it was everything I remembered—and more. I discovered that it had been made in 1969, and it tells the story of the Page family, who lived less than a mile from my old family home on Chiddingly Road. I hadn’t been able to identify their accent on first viewing because it was my accent. Ten or fifteen years after the film had been made I would have met one of the sons because he used to cut the grass in our one field, and he was a regular at the Gun Inn down the road.

It is a wonderful film that depicts a way of life that was anachronistic even when it was made. It seems all the more sad each time I watch it because at it’s heart are two or three undiscussed tragedies.



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Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

Neil Gaiman
Headline

This has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now but I've just not had the urge for it.  I finally got the urge today.

Like his other anthologies 'Trigger Warning' is a mix and match of stories and poems with the latter feeling less onerous than usual - I'm not really all that into his poetry but I read all of these and never felt put off by them.

The stories are where my interests lie though and this book is filled with goodies although without any real standouts.  There are a couple of  things I've already read such as 'The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains' - which was also issued as a graphic novel with art by the amazing Eddie Campbell - and his 11th Doctor story 'Nothing O'Clock'  featuring the paper mask wearing 'Kin'.  Around these are a few notables - the fairy tale redux of 'The Sleeper and the Spindle', the palpable loss experienced in 'Down To A Sunless Sea',  the revelatory nature of 'Adventure Story', another of his twists of the Holmes mythos in 'The Case of Death and Honey', the supremely creepy 'Feminine Endings' and the wonderfully daft 'And Weep Like Alexander'.  The book ends with an American Gods tale with Shadow being as annoyingly dull as ever.  It's not a bad way to end the book, the story is pleasingly chilling with a solid arc but a frustrating lead character.

In all a good read.  I'm glad it's been sat on my shelf all this time because it came into it's own today.

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