Tuesday, 15 October 2019

Mortal Echoes: Encounters With the End

Greg Buzwell (ed)
British Library Tales of the Weird

A strange figure foretells tragedy on the railway tracks. A plague threatens to encroach upon an isolated castle. The daughter of an eccentric scientist falls victim to a poisonous curse.
Yet for all its certainty and finality, death remains an infinitely mysterious subject to us all. The stories in this anthology depict that haunting moment when characters come face to face with their own mortality.
Spanning two centuries, Mortal Echoes features some of the finest writers in the English language – including Daphne du Maurier, Edgar Allan Poe, Graham Greene and H. G. Wells. Intriguing, unsettling and often darkly humorous, this collection explores humanity’s transient existence, and what it means to be alive.

Another in the series of ghoulish tales from the British Library.  They've done about a dozen of these over the last little while and I  thought it was about time I got properly stuck into them.  The first one I read (Glimpses of the Unknown) was a fun excursion into the lesser known corners of the golden age of supernatural fiction.  This one takes a look at various visions of mortality.

In it's pages editor Buzwell includes a nice mix of real classics such as Charles Dickens' 'The Signalman', Sheridan Le Fanu's 'Strange Event in the Life of Schalken the Painter' and Edgar Allan Poe's sublime 'The Masque of the Red Death' and a number of minor greats, Saki's 'Laura', Marjorie Bowen's 'Kecksies' and Robert Aickman's 'Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen' all of which will be familiar to connoisseurs of ghostly anthologies but all of which reward repeated readings.

We have several tales by well known authors who maybe aren't particularly associated with the supernatural such as Graham Greene's tale of an unpleasant encounter in 'A Little Place off the Edgware Road', Daphne du Maurier's murderous lady 'Kiss Me Again, Stranger' and a cosmic excursion in H.G. Wells' 'Under the Knife'.

Beyond these there are a few lesser known authors such as the under-rated May Sinclair, represented here by her fantastic 'Where Their Fire is Not Quenched', the darkly funny 'The School' by Donald Barthelme and Charlie Fish's amusingly daft 'Death by Scrabble'.

The problem with themed anthologies is they can quickly become quite tiresome but Buzwell has put together a nicely varied selection that entirely avoids this pitfall and this is one of the most satisfying and enjoyable anthologies I've read in quite a while.

Buy it here - Mortal Echoes: Encounters with the End (Tales of the Weird)


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Thursday, 10 October 2019

Nothing is Strange

nothing is strange mike russell
Mike Russell
Strange Books

20 mind-expanding short stories.
Inspiring, liberating, otherworldly, magical, surreal, bizarre, funny, disturbing, unique... all of these words have been used to describe the stories of Mike Russell so put on your top hat, open your third eye and enjoy: Nothing Is Strange

 Mike contacted me here at Wyrd Britain to ask me if I'd like to check out his books for possible inclusion here, obviously I said yes and he kindly sent two over.

This, the first, is a collection of short shorts of a whimsically surreal and playful nature.  Stories morph and change in front of your eyes often lasting no longer than a page or three which in many cases is ample time for Mike to squeegee your third eye but there were times when I would have dearly loved to linger longer..

Outside of his playfulness what's most apparent is his sentimental side with love and friendship at the core of much of the work but in many cases slightly obscured by the darkness.  Now, I'm an old softy at heart and I very much approve of that sort of thing and there were a number of stories here that I enjoyed very much and am looking forward to diving back in to Mike's imagination for the second volume.


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Sunday, 29 September 2019

The Keeper (1983)

The Keeper by Alan Garner
'The Keeper', written by Alan Garner, was the final episode of the original 'Spooky' series of the long running Dramarama series, an anthology show for children.

Garner's story concerns 'Beacon Lodge' a dilapidated and long abandoned gamekeeper's lodge where two paranormal researchers - Peter (Tim Woodward) and Sally (Janet Maw) -  settle themselves in for the night.  We know right from the off that there is something already resident, and comfortably at home, in the house and it's not best pleased at the the arrival of the interlopers. A game of scrabble and a poem set the scene for the conclusion as the secret of the house is revealed.

The Keeper by Alan Garner
At the heart of the story is a typically Garner tale of the power that resides in the land, an animistic presence that holds sway over the patch of earth.  It's a short little tale that uses many well worn tricks to build suspense - eerie acoustic instruments, predominantly a dulcimer, and a restless camera that's constantly circling and hovering just behind the Peter and, particularly, Janet - but it must be remembered this is a show made for kids for whom many of these tricks of the trade would be new and also they are well worn because they work.

A genuinely scary story from that golden age of kids television when film-makers had literally no qualms about utterly terrifying their young audience.


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Sunday, 15 September 2019

Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance (1976)

Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance (1979)
'Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance' is a short story written by M.R. James that was included in his second anthology 'More Ghost Stories'. It's my understanding that it was written to bulk out that collection which would make sense as it really does pale in comparison to most of the other tales in that collection.

The gist of the tale is obvious from the title with the inheritance in question being a large house and it's accompanying maze; a maze it seems only Mr. Humphreys can easily navigate and which has at it's centre an enigmatic, inscribed globe.

Mr Humphreys and His Inheritance (1979)
This adaptation was made in 1976 as an ITV schools programme - for those not raised in the UK in the 1970s these were shows made and shown during the daytime with an educational bent that could be used by teachers to distract the kids as they had a sneaky tea and cigarette break - as part of a series called 'Music Scene' whose purpose was to highlight the importance of incidental music to a production which in this context puts modernist tootling over typically Jamesian imagery. It sometimes makes for an odd fit but, for me at least, made a nice change to the usual overblown, portentous, pseudo classical violin sawing that film-makers often smother everything in.

With a run time of only 17 minutes the makers have amalgamated many aspects of the source material and discarded others entirely but they've created an engaging little film that manages to conjure up some nicely claustrophobic sequences within the maze - the point where the incidental music is at it's most effective - and a nifty and creepy animation sequence that looks like the opening of a 1970s Doctor Who episode but with the Doctor replaced with Peter Pratt's melty face version of The Master.

The show is available as an extra here - Casting the Runes [1979] [DVD] - or you can watch it below.


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Sunday, 8 September 2019

Mrs Amworth

Mrs Amworth
Adapted from an E.F. Benson story of the same name 'Mrs Amworth' is a modern vampire tale that finds the titular lady - played with flamboyant aplomb by the fabulous Glynis Johns - both beguiling and terrorising a small English village but finding her match in retired professor  Francis Urcombe (John Phillips).

Apparently made as part of a series of 6 adaptations by the likes of L.P. Hartley, Robert Bloch, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, D.H. Lawrence and Issac Asimov called 'Classics Dark and Dangerous' it seems to have only made it to screen here in the UK for one brief half hour back in 1975 although the various episodes were later amalgamated into two straight to video movies - in this case 'Three Dangerous Ladies'.
(My thanks to the good folks over at the 'Taliesin Meets the Vampires' blog for providing this info)

There're no real chills here but it's got some great music and it's tiny run time means not a second is wasted with a cast of rock solid character actors playing very much within type to produce an understated but fun little treat.

Buy it here - Rare Chills - The Fear Makers:Shadow Of Death & Supernatural:Mrs Amworth [DVD] - or watch it below.


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Sunday, 1 September 2019

Witchfinder General

Witchfinder General
Witchfinder General was the third and final film by Director Michael Reeves before his death from a barbiturate overdose and stars his childhood friend Ian Ogilvy and is based on a fictionalised account of the life of self appointed 'Witchfinder General', Matthew Hopkins, played here with sleazy conviction by Vincent Price.

Following the witchcraft accusation and hanging of a priest, 'John Lowes' (Rupert Davies) and the rape of his niece (and Ogilvy's fiance) 'Sara' (Hilary Dwyer) by Hopkins and his brutal assistant John Stearne (Robert Russell) Ogilvy's roundhead officer 'Richard Marshall' sets out looking for revenge against the despicable duo.

Witchfinder General Ian Ogilvy
Reeve's vision of Civil War era England is one adrift in political turmoil, rife with misogynist superstition and in the thrall of the charismatic Hopkins.  Both the world he conjured and the film he made are unrelentingly and unrepentantly brutal; with the exception of the short burst of hammering as a gallows is constructed the film opens and closes to the sound of screaming with little respite in between.  The fact that it is mostly shot, presumably for budgetary reasons, mostly in daylight and amidst the bucolic delights of the English countryside only adds to the intensity of the experience as every act of callous violence is thrown into stark relief.

Buy it here - Witchfinder General [DVD] - or watch it below.


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Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Mythago Wood

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstock
Robert Holdstock

Deep within the wildwood lies a place of myth and mystery, from which few return, and none remain unchanged.
Ryhope Wood may look like a three-mile-square fenced-in wood in rural Herefordshire on the outside, but inside, it is a primeval, intricate labyrinth of trees, impossibly huge, unforgettable... and stronger than time itself.
Stephen Huxley has already lost his father to the mysteries of Ryhope Wood. On his return from the Second World War, he finds his brother, Christian, is also in thrall to the mysterious wood, wherein lies a realm where mythic archetypes grow flesh and blood, where love and beauty haunt your dreams, and in promises of freedom lies the sanctuary of insanity.

A little while back I had a real hankering for something featuring trees; something where a wood was central to the story.  Not just as a location but as a character, a defining point within the story.  I bought a couple of things I saw around - 'The Vorrh' and 'Wychwood' - but neither delivered the fix I wanted but as luck would have it a 'What are you reading?' post on the Wyrd Britain Facebook page brought this one to my attention and I'm so glad it did.

The wood of the title is Ryhope Wood in Herefordshire a tiny woodland that you could walk around in a couple of hours but which could take you a more than a lifetime to walk through - a TARDIS wood if you will.

The wood is one of the last remaining pieces of the ancient woodland that once covered the country - it is the very heart and soul of Britain - and in it can be found all the myths and legends of the land in the form of 'Mythagos', defined by Holdstock as "myth imago, the image of the idealized form of a myth creature".  Myths and legends created from and filtered through the minds of those intruding upon its confines; if, for instance, the defining consensus of Robin Hood is as the tights wearing, acrobatic, chivalrous righter of wrongs then that's the 'mythago' that will be presented but as the consensus shifts to perceiving him as a sadistic, arrogant woodland terrorist then...

The novel tells of Stephen Huxley's reluctant return to his family home following his experiences fighting in Europe during WWII.  The home where his recently deceased father had based his obsessive research on Ryhope Wood and where Stephen's brother Christian seems to be following in his footsteps.  Once there, as Christian disappears into the depths of the wood, Stephen begins his own journey.

At it's heart the book is a rumination on the centrality of legend, of myth and of story in the British identity.  The Wood encapsulates the entirety of the British mythic identity and feed it back to the observer.  The stories and their characters have a strength to them that enables them to both adapt and endure as can be seen through the actions of such mythagos as 'Guiwenneth' and 'Sorthalan' and in the way Stephen's own journey through the Wood, his quest for love and for revenge, acquires an increasing mythic resonance.

I also wonder if Holdstock was maybe making a more subtle point, an accusation of blame perhaps, as to the loss or lessening of the relevance of myths within British culture as it transpires that it is the arrival and actions of the 'outsider', (the) Christian, that is damaging the Wood and all it holds.

Mythago Wood proved to be that most rare of beasts a truly transformative novel.  One that took hold of me from the off and twisted and writhed and caressed and gnawed and stared and whispered and grinned and punched at me for the entire time I was reading and is still running riot around the back of my head several weeks later.

I adored this book,  unequivocally adored it.

Buy It Here


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Sunday, 21 July 2019

Random Quest

Random Quest (2006) - John Wyndham
Based on the John Wyndham short - originally published as part of his 'Consider Her Ways' collection - Random Quest is the story of a physicist, Colin Trafford (Samuel West), shunted into a parallel dimension and into the body of his counterpart, a selfish, philandering novelist whose wife, Ottilie (Kate Ashfield), he slowly begins to fall in love with.  On returning to his own life he undertakes a quest to reunite with Ottilie who seems not to exist in this universe.

What we get is a rather gentle sort of show slowed by lots of shots of Colin wandering around whilst being filmed from odd angles and through distorting lenses to a lazy, swirly trip-hoppy soundtrack.  As a love story it hits it's beats well and the core cast (including David Burke, Shaun Parkes & Jemima Rooper) are all very watchable.  The unusual premise does leave us with a number of questions though, most crucially the fate of the otherworld Ottilie -  although I do think the film-makers included a large hint with regard to this.

An unhurried, delicate sci-fi love story, perfect for a hazy, lazy summer Sunday viewing.


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Sunday, 7 July 2019

Ghost of Venice

Supernatural 1977 Ghost of Venice
The 1977 BBC anthology series 'Supernatural', created and almost entirely written by Robert Muller, was intended to be a return to old fashioned gothic tales and the classic creatures of horror.  The series found new prospective members of the 'Club of the Damned' telling a sufficiently terrifying tale that would grant them membership or death.

This, the first episode, takes ageing Shakespearean actor Adrian Gall (Robert Hardy) whose maniacal rage at a theft only he remembers many years before during a performance in Venice returns him to that city to face the ghost of his past in the form of Leonora (Sinéad Cusack).

Supernatural 1977 Ghost of Venice hardy and cusack
Filled with flowery monologues and a hysterically hammy performance from Hardy that will have you chuckling and cringing in equal measures.  The studio bound setting of the production makes everything feel a little cheap and the script could certainly have done with some judicial editing to curb it's more floridly bombastic aspects.  The series is generally regarded as a bit of a failure; already old fashioned in tone and in production values upon release it certainly hasn't aged well but personally I quite like a noble failure even if it's just for it's unintended comedy value of which there is plenty here.

You can find another episode from the series here - Night of the Marionettes.

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


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Sunday, 30 June 2019

The Daedalus Equations

The Daedalus Equations, The Mind Beyond
'The Mind Beyond' was a six episode series that screened between September and November 1976 as part of the long running Playhouse series.  We've featured a couple of other episodes from the series here in the past, the excellent 'Stones' and the odd 'The Man with the Power'. 

This time out we meet Hans Deadalus (George Coulouris) a defected East German physicist whose death prompts a local psychic (Megs Jenkins) to begin receiving equations that she passes on to the dead man's colleagues.  The arrival of these equations trigger scepticism, confusion and accusations amongst those who worked with (Michael Bryant, Estelle Kohler & Richard Hurndall) and those who watched over (secret service operative Peter Sallis) Daedalus.

What we get is an intriguing stew that doesn't really have a clear idea of what it is, too much is thrown in the pot and it all starts to lose focus as it unfolds.  My guess is that it's trying for an intriguing ambiguity but doesn't quite manage it by being a little heavy handed particularly in the last third but it does manage to avoid coming to too firm a conclusion which is definitely in it's favour.


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