Sunday, 16 February 2020

And The Wall Came Tumbling Down

Gareth Hunt and Barbi Benton in Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense - And The Wall Came Tumbling Down (1984)
Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense was a joint mid 80s production between the erstwhile studio of the title and 20th Century Fox in the US a collaboration which explains budget, the slightly longer than normal run time and the plethora of relatively big name US stars of the era like David Carradine, Dean Stockwell, David McCallum and Dirk Benedict who show up through the various episodes as well as the various stalwarts of British TV of the time like Gareth Hunt and Peter Wyngarde both of whom feature in this episode alongside playboy model Barbi Benton.

Peter Wyngarde in Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense - And The Wall Came Tumbling Down (1984)
This, the penultimate, episode of the series was written by the great Dennis Spooner the writer behind numerous Gerry Anderson serials such as Stingray and Thunderbirds, script editor for the 1st Doctor era and the co-creator of Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), The Champions, Department S and Jason King for ITC and then later The New Avengers.  His story here reunites him with two of the stars of those series in the forms of Wyngarde and Hunt and tells a story of a church, scheduled for demolition but the scene of several unexplained deaths.

Carol Royle in Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense - And The Wall Came Tumbling Down (1984)
Mixing your typically Hammer satanic, gothic trappings of a spooky old desecrated church with a more modern vision of the apocalypse Spooner has produced a fun, schlocky romp.  The whole thing looks quite nice and races along but few of the actors involved are exerting themselves; Benton is way out of her light comedy comfort zone and Hunt was always more convincing shaking a fistful of coffee beans than as a leading man and Wyngarde has little to do except look spooky and malevolent (and always effortlessly cool) but it is an undeniably fun watch

Buy it here - Hammer House Of Mystery And Suspense - Vol. 2 [DVD] - or watch it below.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Thursday, 13 February 2020

3 Wyrd Things: John Howard

For '3 Wyrd Things' I've asked various creative people 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.

John Howard author
This month, John Howard

John is an author and essayist working in the fields of the uncanny and the fantastical.  His writing first came to my attention through his collaborations with Mark Valentine on their sublime 'The Collected Conoisseur' and since then I've been fortunate to encounter a number of his pieces in various anthologies and journals.

His books include 'The Defeat of Grief', 'The Lustre of Time', 'The Silver Voices', 'Written by Daylight', 'Buried Shadows', 'Secret Europe' and 'Inner Europe' (both with Mark Valentine) and the upcoming 'The Voice of Air'.  His work has been published by some of the finest small press publishers for fantastical fiction around including Tartarus Press, Ex Occidente Press, Swan River Press and Egaeus Press amongst others,  He currently also writes the 'Camera Obscura' review column for Wormwood, a journal concerned with the fantastic, supernatural and decadent in literature.

We are delighted to have John sharing his choices here on Wyrd Britain.

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the novel of the white powder by arthur machen
Book
The Novel of the White Powder and Other Stories
Arthur Machen

By the time I had discovered Arthur Machen in the late 1970s, nothing by him was in print. Although a hardcover edition of Tales of the Horror and the Supernatural was supposedly available, being listed in the reference volume the size of a lectern bible that the friendly man in my town’s only bookshop had consulted, this turned out to be illusory, and I had to make do with scanning the shelves of second-hand bookshops for paperback editions of Machen’s stories.

One of the gaudiest – the cover is a delicious masterpiece evoking Victorian Gothic horror and the corrupting consequences of trespassing over the boundaries – was a compilation called The Novel of the White Powder and Other Stories, which Corgi Books had published in 1965. Two of its three stories I already had in other paperbacks and had read over and over again, but the other was “A Fragment of Life”: a long story, some 80 pages according to the table of contents, and one I had never heard of before. In any case, I would’ve bought the book simply for its cover, but with the prospect of a Machen tale new to me… I have the book in front of me now, and see that the price of 35p is still scrawled inside. I doubt that I ever spent 35p to such advantage.

“A Fragment of Life” is Machen at his most – well – Machenesque. We begin in the bedroom of Mr and Mrs Darnell, in London – but in the dream that Mr Darnell is awakening from, he has been elsewhere else entirely. Then we seem to be in a sort of suburban social comedy, not unlike The Diary of a Nobody (which surely Machen would have known and relished for its inside-job, deliberate, hilarious, utterly deadpan dismantling of middle-class pretensions). Mr Darnell is no Mr Pooter, but Darnell’s friend Wilson, for all his apparent nous, is such an obtuse fool that Mrs Pooter would have found a way of keeping her husband clear of his company. Machen is using his boxing gloves, and we are expected to realise it. But some time before, he had sharpened his best set of kitchen knives, but to a completely different end.

Arthur Machen
Arthur Machen
Although called a ‘fragment’, considerable length is required, because a great deal has to be exposed and trimmed away. The material has to be refined. In the midst of the small, busy, life Darnell shares with his wife, the City clerk comes to realise that his dreams should be his reality – and they can be. All along Machen has been preparing us for an excursion into truth. As Darnell realises it too, he starts devoting his spare time to reading his ancestors’ papers and writing a book. Its motto was written in Latin ‘that was not learnt at the feet of Cicero’: ‘Now I know for certain that all legends, all histories, all fables, every scripture is telling a story about ME.’ Darnell’s life, his London and his Britain, seems to ‘put on the semblance of the stories of the Graal’.

If this story is about one man it can be about me as well. Machen shows how a different, deeper, truly fulfilling world can slowly resolve itself up through the apparently ‘real’ one. The bright but thin new paint is wearing off, and the solid work beneath is revealed at last.

We have been allowed to read an account of a transformation: and yet I for one can never quite see how it is done. Machen’s narrative is deceptively simple; yet he plays with time, shuffling memories and recollections like playing cards. And although an end is achieved, satisfactory and fulfilling and right, Machen himself had to intervene decisively in order to release us. The story is potentially of infinite length, but we have to be free to discover it and enter it for ourselves.

I must stop too.


Film 
Penda’s Fen
Buy it here
 
No doubt I was a strange teenager. For example, I always knew when the equinoxes and solstices were, and tried to observe them, to note another stage in the recurring passage of the years. It was easier for sunsets than sunrises, so I’d walk to some place where there was a clear horizon – and watch. I confirmed that the sun would set behind a certain tree on 21 June – and presumably on every 21 June for as long as the tree stood. Then I’d go back home again, my head full of compass-points and the sense of one more season gone and another beginning.

I’m sure this is very much what I would have done on 21 March 1974. I now also know for certain something else that I did do, later that evening. I was usually allowed to stay up to watch Play for Today, and so I saw that week’s offering, Penda’s Fen. I was allowed to witness a vision.

I did not remember the name of this English legend – legend in many senses – that I was lucky enough to have experienced. But when I saw it again recently I knew. Over the years I had never forgotten some of its images. Only a few, but those clearly had staying-power and had sunk deep, becoming part of the private stock of interior pictures to be summoned and run and re-run, whether by conscious invitation – or not.

There was the main character, Stephen: not yet a man, but much closer to it than I was – wandering the summer landscape, encountering gods and demons and Jesus. The familiar being invaded by something else entirely and leaving its mark. Or was it all in his mind? Adolescence is difficult. There’s a churning sea of beliefs, desires, challenges. Also the challenging of what and who we are and thought we knew. The film jumped into all this and mixed the ancient with the contemporary, all against a setting of fields and hills that has survived well the nearly fifty years that have passed.

‘Is it strikers who pillage our earth, ransack it, drain it dry for quick gain, to hand on nothing but dust to the children of tomorrow?’ asks Arne, the village radical, a television playwright who grows his own vegetables. I remember feeling the uncertainties of the years around 1974: strikes, power-cuts, three-day week, the oil crisis, inflation, the possibility of nuclear war – and so on.

Arne’s words would have been as disturbing to me as they were to Stephen. I used to read the Daily Mail that appeared on the doormat on weekday mornings before breakfast. Arne goes on to connect the events of the day with the surrounding countryside: ‘Poets have hymned the spirit of this landscape… Farmland and pasture now, an ancient fen. The earth beneath your feet feels solid there. It is not.’ He doesn’t mean to talk about anything supernatural, but that makes no difference. For Stephen nothing is solid any more, and Penda’s Fen chronicles his slow realisation of who he really is, of his potential. His parents had remarked on his lack of self-awareness – but Stephen is going to be made aware, whether he likes it or not, of things that will transform him. As he must, the sunlit Elgarian landscape, with all its sunshine, wheat, cottages, hidden violence and centuries of blood, has to come of age too.

I’m sure I didn’t ever seriously imagine that I would see that tomorrow as Arne described – ransacked. But now I’m there I know that there is always more to learn about myself, and people and things to gain better awareness of. And I know that I want to embrace the final words of the film, spoken by (an imagined?) King Penda: ‘Stephen be secret, child be strange: dark, true, impure and dissonant. Cherish our flame. Our dawn shall come.’


Bliss the film music of sir arthur bliss
Album
Things to Come: Concert Music from the Film (from The Film Music of Sir Arthur Bliss)
Buy it here

The film Things to Come (1936) was the innovative and flawed masterpiece by Alexander Korda and H.G. Wells loosely based on Wells’ novel The Shape of Things to Come (1933). From the beginning Wells had wished Arthur Bliss’ music to be ‘a part of the constructive scheme of the film’ and not ‘tacked on’. Inevitably it was not possible to achieve this well-intentioned outcome. Bliss went ahead and wrote his music, some of which was then in effect tacked on to the scenes as they finally emerged on film.

However, Bliss had also prepared an arrangement of the music as an orchestral suite in its own right, and this was first performed before the film was released. Over the decades there have been several attempts to reconstruct a ‘complete’ suite of Bliss’ music, seeking out and including work that had never made it into the film or previous orchestral versions.

This version from 2001 is considered definitive. As much as I like to watch the film, with its tremendous sets and dramatic set-pieces, letting the music complement the often clunky and preachy dialogue, now that it is available I also enjoy listening to this version of the music and imagining aspects of the film unwinding with it – both film and integral music as Wells and Bliss first envisaged.

I close my eyes… I react to four of the eleven sections in particular: “Prologue” (1) and the linked “Excavation”, “The Building of the New World”, and “Machines” (7-9). The Prologue sets the scene (in the film a much shorter version was used for the opening credits). The music is solemn and full of foreboding: war threatens. In the film, the citizens of Everytown (clearly intended to echo London, the Imperial Capital, with a great domed building dominating the skyline) are preparing to celebrate Christmas. Housewives buy turkeys, children gawp at toys in the brightly-lit shop windows, and carol-singers are out – snatches of tunes and singing are intercut – all as the headlines on newspaper vendors’ placards get worse. Then war does break out. Everytown is bombed; gas is used. The ‘Blitz’ scenes are highly effective and were prescient. London’s people and buildings are pulverised. Its soil is torn up. “And so we end an age”: these words spoken towards the end of the film are also appropriate at this point.

War drags on. Decades later it becomes possible to begin reconstruction of the ravaged world. Bliss’ music is clanging and colourful, with pulsing beats and hammering percussion. Hope is returning. In the film this is a medley of industrial scenes, of mining and construction, with the human participants usually dwarfed by colossal machinery and gigantic caverns and structures. Otherwise they are the anonymous engineers, production workers, and labourers taken up by the benign and reasonable scientific rulers in order to shape a sane and efficient new world. I wonder if Wells was remembering this when he published his penultimate book, The Happy Turning, in 1945: ‘In these dreams I apprehend gigantic facades, vast stretches of magnificently schemed landscape, moving roads that will take you wherever you want to go instead of your taking them. “All this and more also,” I rejoice. And though endless lovely new things are achieved, nothing a human heart has loved will ever be lost.’

Unfashionable though it is, I confess that I always find Things to Come – film and music – a stirring and moving vision, and never more so in an era when wars are still threatened, dictators and populists posture and pronounce with no thought for the consequences, and humanity seems to be in love with its own suicide.

Music has its way: this can be dangerous, but not here. The end result is that the soil of Everytown has given-up its riches and resources, and has itself been sacrificed, for the new city is underground, properly ventilated and illuminated. The surface is once more a green and pleasant land. Is that our greatest illusion – or best hope?

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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much appreciate a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Monday, 10 February 2020

Protecting the Stones

We at Wyrd Britain, and I'm sure this is true of many of you too, have an abiding love of the various stones and henges that dot the country.  I'm not an archeologist and indeed have next to no interest in ever discerning their 'true' purpose. For me their enigma is their charm.  They are repositories of the stories we tell of our ancestors and their understanding of their place in the world and of the fictions we weave around our own.

As such we feel they should be protected at all costs and so we were dismayed, when we were sent this petition, to discover that Oxfordshire Council has put forward plans to open the road that passes through the historic Rollright Stones to HGVs a move that can only be detrimental to these ancient monuments.

I shared this petition on the Wyrd Britain Facebook page a week or so ago but it occurs to me that many of you who subscribe to the blog may not frequent the site and would be interested in adding your voice to protest this so here is a link to the petition.

https://you.38degrees.org.uk/petitions/protect-the-ancient-rollright-stones-from-road-expansion-1

Thank you.

Sunday, 26 January 2020

Baby

In 'Baby', the standout episode from Nigel Kneale's 1976 series of bestial horror, 'Beasts', we find newly relocated and expectant couple, Josephine (Jane Wymark) and Peter Gilkes (Simon MacCorkindale) unearthing a jar containing the desiccated remains of some strange creature that had been hidden in the wall of their cottage.  Both Josephine and her cat Muddy - and anyone with an ounce of sense - can feel something wrong with the whole set up but her abusive, selfish and distracted husband, too enamoured with his new life as a country vet to pay any attention to his wife's worry, is disdainful and careless of the whole thing.

We love everything Kneale here at Wyrd Britain and this is no exception.  All the classic Kneale tropes are in play in a story where once more urban science and rural supernatural find themselves at odds as poor Josephine, caught in the middle, slowly gets subsumed by her fears for herself and her baby and the strange events that surround her.  Kneale's script and John Nelson Burton's direction build the tension beautifully but the final reveal when it comes shows far too much and as a result is a bit of an anticlimax but like with many things it's the journey that makes the experience worthwhile.

Buy it here - Beasts - The Complete Series [DVD] [1976] - or watch it below



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Monday, 13 January 2020

The Ley of the Land

Wyrd Britain is a blog about stories, about the fictions we create around this odd little country some of us call home.  Stories about the thin places and the lost places, about stone circles and ancient woodlands, about rabbit holes and hills of dreams, about time travellers, triffids, suddenly appearing shopkeepers and whatever it was that Charlie said.

So, when we decided to launch a label we wanted to release music that also told stories,  music with a narrative and a sense of the mysterious that would be at home within the occult territories of a stranger Britain.

The British Space Group is the most recent project of Welsh musician Ian Holloway and this, his third under that name, follows on from the acclaimed 'Eyes Turned Skyward' and the radiophonic miniatures of 'Phantasmagoria'.  This latest album continues the hauntologically inclined electronica of those albums but combines it with the dark, post-industrial ambience of the albums he's released under his own name over the last two decades on labels such as Quiet World.

'The Ley of the Land' tells a subtle story; one of dark nights and disembodied voices.  It tells of a haunted moment and gives a time stretched glimpse behind the curtain into an enigmatic and uneasy other here.

'The Ley of the Land' is available for download or as a limited edition CDr by clicking on the player below.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Sunday, 12 January 2020

The Gourmet

Charles Grey in The Gourmet
Charles Gray, who many will know as both Blofeld to Sean Connery's Bond and Mycroft to Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes, plays the magnificently named Manley Kingston a gastronome of international repute who has dedicated his life to sampling all the foods the world has to offer. 

In this story, written in the mid eighties (IMDB says 1984, BFI says 1987) by Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguo, we find Manley on the verge of achieving his greatest wish and an end to his ennui; having tried and tired of everything within the natural world he at last turns his taste buds to the supernatural.

The script is subtle with any horror elements kept to an absolute minimum and what we have is an enthralling character study of greed and obsession and the mixed blessings of fulfilling ones fixations.  In a reflection of the times in which it was made we see the corpulent consumerism of Manley's existence in stark contrast to the poverty of many of those around him as he descends upon a church in the East End of London with the sole intent to inflict more damage and indignity on a deceased poor man of the parish whilst feeling absolutely no shame in admitting his actions to a homeless man (Mick Ford) who is essentially a modern day equivalent to that unfortunate.

Gray, almost never a leading man, dominates the screen here with his beautifully expressive face alive with ennui, haughty disdain and the foulest gluttony as he wanders through the world aloof from and all but oblivious to those around him, presumably his proclivities having reduced them to little more than cattle.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Wednesday, 8 January 2020

Lavondyss

Lavondyss - Robert Holdstock
Robert Holdstock
Orion Books

At the heart of the wildwood lies a place of mystery and legend, from which few return and none emerged unchanged: Lavondyss . . . the ultimate realm, the source of all myth.
When Harry Keeton disappeared into Ryhope Wood, his sister Tallis was just an infant. Now, thirteen years old, she hears him whispering to her from the Otherworld. He is in danger. He needs her help. Using masks, magic and clues left by her grandfather, she finds a way to enter the primitive forest and begin her search. Eventually she comes to Lavondyss itself, a realm both beautiful and deadly, a place in which she is changed forever.

Following on from the glorious 'Mythago Wood' the second book in the Ryhope Wood cycle takes a slightly different tack to it's predecessor.

Beginning shortly after the departure, in book one, of Harry Keeton into the depths of Ryhope Wood we here have the story of his little sister 'Tallis' and her quest to find and help him escape from it's confines.  In this she is aided by both the masks and the mythagos she creates along the way in a story that spans her entire life.

This time out Holdstock seems more interested in the role of place and landscape in myth and legend than he does in those that populate it.  Many of the characters and places are crude and at times bestial and here magic is at it's most primal, found literally within their bones, their twigs and their stones.

Life in the wood, as befits a realm made from the mythic collective unconscious of a nation, is tumultuous and brutish but in Tallis we have a guide whose understanding of the realm is instinctive having lived her entire life in it's shadow and it's very substance.

As a sequel Lavondyss is an odd sort of creation that takes two points from it's forebear and weaves them into it's narrative but I think considering it as a sequel does it an injustice. Lavondyss is a book almost entirely unto itself that tells a different sort of story and does so in a manner that is every bit as awe-inspiring as it's - let's call it a - companion volume.

But it here - Lavondyss

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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Sunday, 5 January 2020

Dorabella

'Dorabella' was the final episode of the 1977 BBC series 'Supernatural' that consisted of eight episodes of gothic horror that harked back to the classic horrors of the 1930s but to my eyes more closely resemble the gothic delights produced by the Hammer Studio in the early 1970s. Each episode featured a prospective member of the 'Club of the Damned' as they made their case for admittance by telling a terrifying true story of their encounters with the supernatural.

Written By Robert Muller (who wrote 7 of the 8 episodes) 'Dorabella' tells the story of an enchanting vampire and of the two young men who have fallen for her charms as they follow her across the country, for the most part ignoring the carnage left in her wake.

Like the other episodes from the series that we've featured in these pages the episode is beautifully produced but suffers from a slightly histrionic script and features a cast with a penchant for leaving teeth marks in the scenery. Ania Marson does make for a suitably bewitching lead though at times positively oozing malice and this is one of the better episodes of a series generally regarded as a bit of a noble flop.

Buy it here - Supernatural (2-disc DVD set) - or watch it below.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Tuesday, 24 December 2019

M.R. James at Christmas

I was wondering what to post tonight and then this brand new upload appeared on my feed of 5 Radio 4 adaptations of some of M.R. James' finest stories including 'Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad', 'The Tractate Middoth, 'Lost Hearts', 'The Rose Garden' and 'Number 13' dating from Christmas 2007.  It features Derek Jacobi as the venerable author alongside folks such as Julian Rhind-Tutt and Susan Jameson.

So, with this cavalcade of ghostly delights Wyrd Britain would like to wish you all a very merry Christmas.




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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain

Sunday, 15 December 2019

The Terror

Arthur Machen
Welsh writer and mystic Arthur Machen wrote 'The Terror' in 1917 at the height of the first World War, one of a notable body of work that he wrote during that most turbulent period with the most (in)famous being 'The Bowmen', the tale that triggered the legend of 'The Angel of Mons'.

The Terror tales the story, from the perspective of the inhabitants of a small, rural Welsh community, of an uprising of the natural world as villagers are dying in mysterious circumstances.  We are placed in the company of Dr. Lewis as he investigates the deaths and learns more of similar events around the country.

You can see it's influence in works such as Daphne du Maurier's 'The Birds', M Knight Shyamalan's 'The Happening' and even in the 'when animals attack' horror sub genre of the 1980s by the likes of Guy N Smith and Shaun Hutson but please don't expect the visceral carnage of the later though as Machen is a far more lyrical author. Here he keeps the terror at arms length, we rarely see it's immediate impact arriving after the fact with only clues to lead us to the truth of the matter that is slowly teased out around the more fanciful theories of one of Lewis' club mates.

Personally I have a preference for Machen's more folkloric and overtly supernatural work and as such 'The Terror' isn't a tale I return to particularly often but there is a real dearth of Machen adaptations out there and so to find this early 80s (New Year's Eve 1981 to be precise) radio play was an unexpected treat too good not to share with you all.



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If you enjoy what we do here on Wyrd Britain and would like to help us continue then we would very much welcome a donation towards keeping the blog going - paypal.me/wyrdbritain