Thursday, 15 November 2018

Tomato Cain and other stories

Tomato Cain and other stories by Nigel Kneale
Nigel Kneale

This one has been up near the top of my list of books to track down for years NOW and to finally get my hands on a copy was a real treat.

The book holds 26 stories of which there were only two that I'd read before, the haunted house of 'Minuke' and the amphibious revenge of 'The Pond'.  I'd read enough reviews of the book to know that it was going to perhaps be a bit of a patchy read but I'm ever the optimist and so dived right in.  Turns out it's a bit of a patchy read.

There are some nicely effective tales here.  There are moments of light horror such as the two stories already mentioned and 'The Stocking', a ghost story or two ('Patter of Tiny Feet' & 'Peg'), a fun snippet of sci-fi ('The Calculation of M'Bambwe'), stories of madness ('Jeremy in the Wind'), illness ('The Photograph'), innocence ('A Lotus for Jamie') friendship ('The Excursion'), deceit ('Oh Mirror, Mirror') and death ('Zachary Crebbins Angel') to name just those stories that had the most impact.  There are many more that felt like filler.  All readable enough but with little about them that was either interesting or memorable'

I am though very glad to finally get to put a mental tick next to this one and that it had some very enjoyable moments - 'Jeremy in the Wind' and 'A Lotus for Jaime' in particular.  It wasn't all I hoped it would be but it was much more than I feared.


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Sunday, 11 November 2018

The Shout

The Shout 1978
As you can probably infer from it's title sound is very much at the heart of 'The Shout'; the sonic experiments of Anthony Fielding (John Hurt), Crossley's (Alan Bates) playing with his wine glass, the diegetic sounds of the rural setting, the progish / ambient soundtrack by Mike Rutherford and Tony Banks of Genesis. and, of course, the mortiferous Shout itself.  The sound design by Alan Bell is the shining jewel at the heart of the movie.

The Fielding's, Anthony and Rachel (Susannah York), live an idyllic existence in a small coastal village until their lives are turned upside down by the arrival of the interloper Crossley who claims to have lived with Australian Aborigines in the outback where he has learnt their magic; a magic that he soon brings to bear on the couple.

John Hurt in The Shout
Based on Robert Graves fantastic short story Polish director Jerzy Skolimowski brings a decidedly arthouse sensibility to the film with time jumps, sudden switches to black and white and slow motion and a deliberate and slow pace that allows the menace in Bates' performance, the confusion in Hurt's and the loss of self in York's to build to palpable extremes before the film culminates in a thunderous if perhaps slightly anticlimactic ending.

Buy it here - The Shout - or watch it below.


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Friday, 9 November 2018

3 Wyrd Britain: Grey Malkin

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.

This month, Grey Malkin

Musician and writer Grey Malkin was previously the guiding hand behind 'The Hare And The Moon' who released several acclaimed albums and EPs between 2009 and 2017 before going the way of all things.  You can the music archived at the Bandcamp page here.

Grey has most recently been working on new music as Embertides (with David Colohan), Widow's Weeds and in collaboration with Ashtoreth.

We are honoured that he took time out of his schedule to participate in 3 Wyrd Things.

All In The Downs, Shirley Collins
(Buy it here)
With regards to books, I did think about focusing on some of the literature I have been reading lately; the Arthur Machen that I am revisiting such as The Great God Pan or the wyrd tales of Robert Aickman, perhaps the vintage supernatural writings of H R Wakefield. However, it is a biography that stands out in my mind as to having a substantial impact upon me, both in terms of having an emotional pull and in not being able to put the book down. Shirley Collins is without a doubt one of my favourite singers, I could listen to Love, Death and the Lady or indeed her recent Lodestar (one of her best works in my opinion) on constant repeat. Her Glasgow concert supporting Lodestar as a part of the Celtic Connections festival is one of the finest shows I have witnessed; I was therefore already greatly interested in reading about Collins as an artist. However it was the deeply human element and the joy and tragedy in her story that swept me out of my immediate surroundings onto the pages and text of the book and held me there, until I had to return reluctantly to the outside world and wait till I could pick up where I had left off. I also read All In The Downs during the summer whilst travelling around the more rural or coastal areas of Scotland and the north of England, partly in order to witness some of the seasonal folk traditions in different towns and villages. This also seemed timely and to resonate with the book itself; there is much of the experience in living alongside the natural world and of the importance of these rural and urban folkloric rituals inherent and included in Collins' writing.

Certain passages haunt and stay with me; the dysphonia that she suffered following the deep betrayal of partner Ashley Hutchings during the Lark Rise To Candleford production that essentially ended her career for nigh on thirty years, the moving and rich memories of life with her parents and sister Dolly, her dedication to folksong as a medium for the people who have sung and carried on the tradition, her journey to the States with traditional song archivist Alan Lomax and her sensitivity to the appalling racism that was present there. Collins appears to be a strikingly strong and determined character and I find her life inspiring both in artistic and human terms. She seems to bridge eras and represents the best in each. If I can be somewhat cheeky and sneak in an extra ‘watching’ element to this piece I would highly recommend The Ballad of Shirley Collins documentary for its equally honest and quietly passionate portrayal of its subject; it is very much a suitable companion piece to this biography.

The Mad Death
(Buy it here)

Ostensibly a dystopian production about an influx of rabies into the British Isles (primarily Scotland), The Mad Death is a curious mix of late 70’s and early 80’s apocalyptic drama with elements of such shows as Survivors and The Day Of The Triffids, as well as appearing like one elongated public information film. In other words it is bleak, the countryside foreboding and the cityscapes grim; moreover all the male leads constantly shout and bellow all of their lines (what was with all the shouting men in British television drama in those eras? ‘Greg’ in Survivors and ‘Peter Brock’ in The Stone Tape are two such examples).

And The Mad Death is relentlessly unforgiving and, at times, genuinely frightening. With little space given to any character’s back story or much focus on interpersonal relationships, the drama plays out like an emergency planning exercise as to just how the country would react to such a terrifying outbreak. For those of a certain vintage, there will be vivid memories of the rabid fox in the wood, its mouth a mass of yellow foam and speckled blood. That it now looks like a demented glove puppet doesn’t entirely take away its impact; this is essentially about man’s struggle to control nature and nature’s impassive reluctance to submit. The rabid dog in the urban multi-story car park or loose in the shopping centre, the rabies victims’ hydrophobia and visibly unpleasant demise; all are etched forever on the minds of those who tuned in and watched in horror all that time ago, emphasising to those young viewers that the world was a deeply unsafe, unpredictable and unforgiving place.

Indeed, I recall a period at school after some friends had managed to view The Mad Death (despite being very young and clearly far too impressionable) which then generated an urban myth about a three legged rabid fox that patrolled our back gardens at night. One boy even claimed it leapt up at his sitting room window, trying to bite and infect him through the glass and leaving saliva, foam and blood smeared across the glass. That a three legged fox would have to be some kind of acrobat to achieve this did not occur to us; it was the mad death that we feared.

Recently released on DVD, it is possible now to see the programme’s faults and lack of effects budget in the cold light of day. Yet, it is also clear what The Mad Death’s achievements are. There is little compromise, there are some truly disturbing moments and it follows its premise grimly to its conclusion in a way that would surely be softened now by character arcs or viewer sensitivities. Plus, that foaming fox is still just a little bit frightening.

Coil - The Ape Of Naples
(Buy it here)

A posthumous album in that Jhonn Balance passed a year before its release but also one in which certain songs had been frequently reworked and revisited from as far back as Coil's abandoned venture to the States to record for Trent Reznor's Nothing label, this release correspondingly sits somewhere in the liminal space between existence and another plain entirely. It is a most apt place to find Coil and there are clues, if you want to look for them, throughout the album from the opening lines of 'Does death come alone, or with eager reinforcements?' to the closing 'It just is…', the latter a sage comment from Balance that follows Going Up, a hymnal lament to the lost singer that merges the theme tune from Are You Being Served to a truly melancholy castrato and organ funeral mass. Past hauntings are subtly visible again in A Cold Cell, The Last Amethyst Deceiver and Teenage Lightning whilst It's In My Blood takes the previous A.Y.O.R. and turns it into an industrial tsunami, replete with screams and Thighpaulsandra's terrifying orchestral keyboard sweeps. All of Coil is here; from the early aural assault of Scatology, to the death psalms of Horse Rotorvator right up to the liquid moon musick of later years. And this may be why The Ape Of Naples holds such an appeal for me; it feels like the black, beating heart of Coil exists here in these songs, their manifesto and final testament combined. The last year or so has felt particularly funereal and final for me in parts and this has been a fitting soundtrack, one which I have returned to again and again for solace, humour and escape. We shall never see their like again, both Balance and Christopherson now being gone but The Ape Of Naples sits out of time and place and is possibly endless. A good thing too.


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Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Supernatural Tales 37

David Longhorn (editor)
Supernatural Tales

I've been thoroughly enjoying these quarterly magazines from the Supernatural Tales blog.  They give me a semi regular fix of a Mark Valentine story and have introduced me to a couple of other interesting writers.

I have to say though I was less enamoured of this issue than I usually am.  Mark is here and his 'The Forwarding Agent' is another delicately twisted exploration of odd hobbies and fractured reality but the other stories just didn't really do all that much for me.

C.M. Muller's 'Slattergreen' was an initially intriguing tale of loss and transformation that came to a far too sudden and jarring end that left me wondering what the point was. A feeling magnified tenfold in Jeremy Schlieve's 'Children's Castles'.

'Silver' by Helen Grant was a nicely written werewolf tale that seemed to have been inspired by the author's discovery of an interesting piece of trivia regarding glass-making rather than by the story itself and so I came out of it thinking more about the factoid and the construction of the story than the story itself.

With the exception of a couple of reviews by the editor the book closes with Chloe N Clark's 'Leopard Seals' a really intriguing story wrapped in some padding about a dream. The central idea I thought really promising but the dream stuff just seemed like filler.

A slightly frustrating read this time out but not entirely a bad one although I really could have done without the one about the castle.


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Tuesday, 30 October 2018

Lolly Willowes

Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Sylvia Townsend Warner
New York Review Books Classics

In Lolly Willowes, an ageing spinster rebels against her role as the universal aunt, at everybodys beck and call. How she escapes all that "—to have a life of one's own, not an existence doled out to you by others", is the theme of this story.

You know that moment whilst reading a book where you suddenly realise that you are deeply besotted with it.  This happened to me today about 50 pages into 'Lolly Willowes' and stayed with me all the way to the end.

Laura 'Lolly' Willowes is, at the beginning of the book, a young woman living a quiet and introverted life in the family home with her much loved father.  His death sends her to London to live with her brother's family where she slowly loses her identity to the new benign persona of 'Aunt Lolly' finding an expression of herself only in the luxurious flowers with which she decorates her room until in middle age she decides on the spur of the moment to move to the small Chiltern village of Great Mop and become a witch.

Warner's first novel is a fantastic and fantastical exploration of the lot of a young unmarried woman in the early decades of the 20th century.  As the century unfolds we slowly see Laura take increasing control of her life and break free from patriarchal, familial and social restraints as the novel does the same and becomes as much a meditation on religion and the very nature of Satan as it is on the lot of women and it is glorious.

Beautifully written, delicately paced and deliciously insightful. I adored this book.

Buy it here -  Lolly Willowes


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Sunday, 28 October 2018

Child's Play

'Child's Play' was the third episode of the short lived series Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense screened in the UK in late 1984 and jointly made by Hammer Studios and 20th Century Fox Television.  Ann (Mary Crosby), Michael (Nicholas Clay) and their daughter Sarah wake early one morning to discover their house has been completely encased in a solid metal shell.  As the family strive to escape, the temperature rises, tempers fray, memories slip, a mysterious symbol starts appearing around the house and a strange green goo pours down the chimney.

Stereotypical TV gender roles abound with Clay remaining steadfast and plucky and channelling his inner A-Team by making an improvised bomb in his own kitchen whilst Crosby is all brittle emotions and desperation.  Little can salvage the ending when it arrives in the shape of a pretty desperate twist in the tail but director Val Guest (The Quatermass Xperiment, Quatermass 2, Space: 1999) imbues the episode with a sweaty claustrophobia that disguises the paucity of the story.

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


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Wednesday, 24 October 2018

The Three Impostors

The Three Imposters by Arthur Machen
Arthur Machen

The Three Impostors is an episodic novel by British horror fiction writer Arthur Machen. The novel incorporates several inset weird tales and culminates in a final denouement of deadly horror, connected with a secret society devoted to debauched pagan rites. The three impostors of the title are members of this society who weave a web of deception in the streets of London-retailing the aforementioned weird tales in the process-as they search for a missing Roman coin commemorating an infamous orgy by the Emperor Tiberius and close in on their prey: "the young man with spectacles".

Over the last few years I've been slowly amassing a small (but perfectly formed) collection of Machen books having become slightly besotted after reading 'The White People'.  I've discovered in that time that I generally prefer his short work to the long but this is often the case for me with writers of the outre.  The long stuff is fine - 'The Hill of Dreams' was a hell of a read but an exhausting one as I felt no love for the central character - but I like the short, sharp, shock of the smaller tales.  With that in mind 'The Three Imposters' offered up the best of both worlds being a novel made up of several interconnected shorts; a portmanteau novel.

The story concerns Dyson and his friend Phillips who find themselves unknowingly at the centre of a scheme after Dyson finds a rare coin.  The coin itself is a bit of a MacGuffin but as the story unfolds the two begin to experience a series of bizarre encounters with strangers who each relate a macabre and twisted tale.

A couple of these tales are ones that even the most casual Machen reader will likely have come across as they are regularly anthologised - 'The Novel of the Black Seal' and 'The Novel of the White Powder' - the first a dark slice of rural horror of the true face of the fair folk of this land and the second a proto-sci-fi tale with distinct echoes of 'Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde'.

These two tales are by far the stand out moments of the book, of the remaining stories all are, at worst, readable but neither the novel of '...the Dark Valley' or '... the Iron Maid' reach the heights of the other two.  Dyson and Phillips are odd characters and their insular natures make them somewhat nonchalant to the plight of the young man with spectacles but, for the reader at least, his fate is sealed from the off.

'The Three Impostors' was a particularly early work for Machen (published a year after 'The Great God Pan' and predating 'The Hill of Dreams' by some 12 years) and it shows a writer reconciling his own imagination with that of his literary heroes and while there are definite flaws it all adds up to a most enjoyable whole. 

Buy it here - The Three Impostors


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Sunday, 21 October 2018

The Vault of Horror

The Vault of Horror (1973) poster
Directed by the great Roy Ward Baker (Quatermass and the Pit (1967) The Vampire Lovers (1970) and The Monster Club (1981) and numerous episodes of ITV and ITC spy-fi serials including The Avengers, The Saint and The Champions), Vault of Horror was the sixth of the seven portmanteau horror films made by Amicus Productions.  It consists of five stories wrapped in a framing story of five men in an elevator finding themselves trapped in a clean and well lit basement that handily has five chairs and a ready supply of booze.  In the great tradition of these sort of things each man then  tells a story, in this case of a recurring dream.

Glynis Johns in The Vault of Horror (1973)
Unlike other portmanteaus that often featured at least one comedic story in order to lighten the mood, this one's the other way round with 4 of the 5 stories in 'Vault of Horror' being very much played for laughs.  From the lamentable fangs of the bourgeois patrons of the vampire restaurant in 'Midnight Mess' via a fabulous slapstick performance by Glynis Johns as the bullied wife of obsessive neat freak Terry-Thomas in 'The Neat Job' to venerable actor Curt Jurgens wrestling with a rope in 'This Trick’ll Kill You' and Robin Nedwell and Geoffrey Davies riffing on their characters from the hugely successful 'Doctor...' comedies in 'Bargain in Death'.  The final story, 'Drawn and Quartered', featuring a magnificantly hirsute Tom Baker - soon to be de-bearded and be-scarfed in the role we all know him for - is the exception to the frivolity in a voodoo tale of artistic revenge.

Terry-Thomas and Tom Baker in The Vault of Horror (1973)In a slightly odd twist 'Vault of Horror' takes most of it's stories, from the pages of 'Tales from the Crypt' comic book rather than from the one whose name it bears and whilst being eminently watchable and featuring some good performances from some fine actors it is a rather slight and disposable sort of thing which isn't really meant to be an insult.  When I'm in the right sort of mood this is one of my go to movies as for the expenditure of very little effort it provides plenty of smiles.

Buy it here - Vault of Horror - or watch it below.


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Sunday, 14 October 2018

Night of the Marionettes

Supernatural (1977) - Night of the Marionettes
Created and mostly written by Robert Muller the 1977 BBC anthology series 'Supernatural' was an attempt to make a series of - even then - old fashioned gothic horror tales filled with vampires, werewolves and the like.  Each episode revolved around the telling of a scary tale by a prospective member of the 'Club of the Damned' who, if their tale proved sufficiently terrifying would be granted membership, if not then their lives would be forfeited.

'Night of the Marionettes' tells of a writer (Gordon Jackson - 'George Cowley' from 'The Professionals') obsessed by Lord Byron and the two Shelley's - Mary in particular - who, with his wife and daughter in tow,  takes lodging at a deserted Swiss hotel where he becomes convinced that the source of his obsession had lodged before him.  Indeed, it soon becomes clear that the exuberant marionette show performed by the innkeeper (Vladek Sheybal) and his family may have had quite the profound effect on the young Mary.

Supernatural (1977) - Night of the Marionettes
The end result is a flawed attempt at an interesting idea.  Sheybal gives his usual wonderfully alien performance but Jackson and Pauline Moran (most widely known as Poirot's 'Miss Lemon' and who also played the titular character in the Nigel Kneale adaptation of 'The Woman in Black') who plays his daughter - also called Mary - are both hamming it up something terrible and only seem comfortable in their roles when engaging in some incestuous flirting.  The old, wooden hotel is a great setting though and there's a wonderfully Hammer Horror graveyard visible through the window and in more capable hands this could have been a gothic classic rather than just an interesting flawed attempt at revitalising the genre.

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


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Wednesday, 10 October 2018

The Unsettled Dust

Robert Aickman - The Unsettled DustRobert Aickman
Faber & Faber

Robert Aickman, the supreme master of the supernatural, brings together eight stories where strange things happen that the reader is unable to predict. His characters are often lonely and middle-aged but all have the same thing in common - they are all brought to the brink of an abyss that shows how terrifyingly fragile our peace of mind actually is.
'The Next Glade', 'Bind Your Hair' and 'The Stains' appeared together in The Wine-Dark Sea in 1988 while 'The Unsettled Dust', 'The House of the Russians', 'No Stronger Than a Flower', 'The Cicerones' and 'Ravissante' first appeared in Sub Rosa in 1968. The stories were published together as The Unsettled Dust in 1990. Aickman received the British Fantasy Award in 1981 for 'The Stains', which had first appeared in the anthology New Terrors (1980), before appearing in the last original posthumous collection of Aickman's short stories, Night Voices (1985).

'The Unsettled Dust' was a posthumous collection released some 9 years after the authors death.  The stories included all bear Aickman's characteristic strangeness which can result  in them being equal parts frustrating and enthralling.
The opening - titular - tale is an almost straightforward (by Aickman's standards) and old fashioned  haunted house tale as a representative of a trust is subjected to the dubious hospitality of two sisters in their dusty old house in a quietly sad tale of family, pride and unreconciled loss, themes that are echoed in 'The Houses of the Russians', an intriguing little tale of an island of abandoned homes and the memories they hold of  their former inhabitants.

'No Stronger Than A Flower' was the first Aickman tale I ever read and this story of a woman's metamorphosis loses none of it's brutal power in a reread several years on and with a wider knowledge of what to expect - that is if one can even remotely 'expect' anything in an Aickman story.

'The Cicerones' is another story I was familiar with, this time through the adaptation made by Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson - watch it here.   I'm not particularly enamoured of it but I was struck by how closely the filmed version stuck to the text.

'The Next Glade' is another story that I found somewhat uninspiring.  Unusually for Aickman the strangeness here felt contrived and a little but forced.  I can't put my finger on anything in particular about it but for me it failed to gel and the story was both dull and flat.

Things get very much back on track with 'Ravissante' as we're shown into a world that is both mannered and deeply strange filled with simmering sexual repression and denied release and the folk horror duo of 'Bind Your Hair', another beautifully ambiguous enigma of rural weirdness and the book's award winning closing tale, 'The Stains', a story of love lost, love found, family, responsibility, innocence and lichen which sees about as Aickmanesque an ending to to this write-up as I'm going to come up with.

Buy it here -  The Unsettled Dust


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Sunday, 7 October 2018

The Exorcism

Dead of Night The Exorcism
One of the few surviving episodes of the 1970s BBC series Dead of Night, 'The Exorcism' is the story of a dinner party gone very wrong indeed.

Writer / director Don Taylor's story places two bourgeois couples Clive Swift & Sylvia Kay and Edward Petherbridge & Anna Cropper at dinner in the new country cottage home of the latter pair slowly being consumed by the pent up anger of the past that permeates the walls of the house.  The power fails, the lavish food spoils and the wine turns to blood as the house tries to exorcise itself of these unclean spirits and give voice to those that had lived and died there before.

Dead of Night The Exorcism
With his directors hat on Taylor never quite manages to instill any notable sense of trepidation and in his writer's hat his socialist leanings are given voice in a sometimes slightly heavy handed way in a story about poverty, injustice and class warfare rescued by some good performances from a dependable cast, hauntily atmospheric music and an easy, unhurried pace.

We've featured another episode from this series on Wyrd Britain before which you can watch here - A Woman Sobbing.

Buy it here - Dead of Night (DVD) - or watch it below.


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Friday, 5 October 2018

3 Wyrd Things: Mark Valentine

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.

This month, Mark Valentine

Mark Valentine is an English author, biographer and editor whose stories have been published by a number of small presses and in anthologies since the 1980s.
Valentine has published a biography of Arthur Machen (Seren Press), a study of Sarban, 'Time, A Falconer' (Tartarus Press), several books of essays on lesser known authors, groups and landscapes (also Tartarus Press) - the most recent of which, 'A Country Still All Mystery', has just become available again - a book of poetry, 'Star Kites' and a number of collections of short fictions including his (and John Howard's) wonderful series of occult detective stories, 'The Collected Connoisseur'. He has also written numerous articles for the Book and Magazine Collector magazine, and introductions for various books, including editions of work by Walter de la Mare, Robert Louis Stevenson, Saki, J. Meade Falkner and others.
Valentine also edits Wormwood (Tartarus Press), a journal dedicated to fantastic, supernatural and decadent literature, and has also edited anthologies, including 'The Werewolf Pack' (Wordsworth, 2008) and 'The Black Veil' (Wordsworth, 2008).

You can read more of Mark's writing at the shared Wormwoodiana blog.

We love Mark's work here at Wyrd Britain and we are hugely honoured to feature his selection for this month's '3 Wyrd Things'.

Headlong Hall by Thomas Love Peacock.
(Buy it here)
There was a Pan paperback with a cover depicting a solemn young cloaked gentleman fingering a skull while ivy wreathed around him. And it contained not only Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey (two titles alone enough to allure anyone with an interest in ghost stories and the Gothic) but also The Misfortunes of Elphin, a romance of Welsh folk stories. Peacock’s books from the early 19th century involved assembling a party of eccentrics at some remote country house, where they drink, dine, debate and sing, and in the end are rather perfunctorily married off, or otherwise confirmed in their heart’s desires. In between time they have odd adventures and expound even odder notions. They include Mr Escot, the deteriorationist, who thinks the world is getting worse, and Mr Foster, the perfectibilian, who thinks the reverse. Their lively arguments do not affect their cordiality to each other.

I had been recommended Peacock’s work at age 16 by a highly prescient English teacher, the poet Donald Atkinson, who thought I would like them, even though they weren’t on the syllabus. I was astounded to find that old books could be so enjoyable. “Mr Milestone wielded the poker with a degree of dexterity which induced the rest of the party to leave him in sole possession of a considerable circumference” was one of the choice phrases I at once admired, both for its madcap slapstick and its mock-orotundity. When, some many years later, an astute observer suggested to me that most of my stories were about friendship (something I had simply not noticed), I knew where that must have begun: with these companionable, affable, epicurean and eccentric books.

Titus Groan – Titus Groan LP.
(Buy it here)
At the bottom of Bridge Street, Northampton, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, was Memory Lane, a shabby second-hand record shop which always stank of stale tobacco, but had racks and racks of obscure discs, all very cheap. Here I found (for just 25p each) unknown ska singles imported from the Caribbean, with labels of mustard yellow and terracotta red, including the poignant trombone-led instrumental, ‘Lonely Man’ by Ronald Wilson, with its yearning melody and under-stated melancholy. Here too was the peculiar ‘Dance of the Psychedelic Lounge Lizards’ by The Neutrons, who turned out to be mostly the Welsh band Man. A Dawn sampler album introduced me to Comus, with their goatly bleating vocals and wildwood flute: and a similar selection from John Peel’s Dandelion label included Bridget St John’s magical, dreamy track ‘Fly High’. Both of these acts have, rather wonderfully, reappeared in recent times. But, most of all, I could hardly be expected to resist a gatefold sleeve in sombre black and burnt orange depicting a grotesque satyr playing the bagpipes through a head, and entitled Titus Groan. Particularly when there was the promise of a flute and a track over eleven minutes long entitled ‘Hall of Bright Carvings’, with another devoted to Titus Groan’s saturnine sister, Fuschia. Nor was I disappointed when I got it home and listened to the pounding rhythm, wailing flute and solemn vocals. “In the dusty high-vaulted halls / Bright carvings glow, but no-one sees them” – in a glimmer, I was in Castle Gormenghast. And this album is a sort of touchstone for all the obscure things I’ve found in dusty back street shops and have tried to write about in fervent notes.

Arthur of the Britons.
(Buy it here)
The Arthurian mythos and the twilight centuries after the last of Roman Britain have always drawn me, and pervade quite a lot of my writing. It was pursuing this interest that led me to the work of Arthur Machen, Charles Williams, Mary Butts and other favourite authors. But if you look up the indexes of books of Dark Age history now, you will find that often Arthur is pointedly omitted. Most current academics decline to accept there is any real evidence for his existence. Others, while making use of the magic of his name and including it in their titles, mention him only to diminish or dismiss any such figure. This seems to me a swing of the pendulum too far: there is a certain amount of fragmentary evidence that ought to be more thoughtfully considered. And if indeed there was a British warlord and/or a legendary hero, whether from Cumbria, Wales or Cornwall, then he was probably not unlike the character depicted in HTV’s excellent 1972-3 series, starring Oliver Tobias in the title role. There was nothing of the anachronistic knights in armour of the French romances here, but a more authentic and credible figure whose adventures, while rooted in a thoughtful picture of Dark Age culture, were still sufficiently thrilling. This was a subtle and knowledgeable portrayal which stripped away the later courtly accretions while still keeping the glamour and mystery of the myths. It made that misty time live for me, and I remember it with affection and respect. Indeed, at the slightest provocation, I can and do still whistle the theme tune, both stirring and wistful.


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Wednesday, 3 October 2018


Raven by Jeremy Burnham and Trevor Ray
Jeremy Burnham & Trevor Ray
Corgi Carousel

A young tearaway on probation from a young offenders' institution, is sent to stay with a wheelchair-bound archaeologist who is trying to save some ancient underground caves from being used as a nuclear waste dumping ground.. Legend has it that the caves were once occupied by King Arthur, and when Raven joins the archaeologist's campaign, he begins to believe he is the reincarnation of Arthur, and the future of the caves depends on him.

From the guys behind the 'Children of the Stones' TV series and book, 'Raven' was another slice of rural horror drenched in megalithic lore and, in this case, Arthurian legend.

Raven is a young man with a chequered past on release from Borstal and roped into helping the crotchety old Professor Young protect an archaeologically significant cave system from becoming a dumping ground for nuclear waste.

The story is kind of a muddle with the Arthurian elements being particularly underdeveloped and feeling at best a little tacked on in order to make the whole protection of the land angle work. And work it does but it needed more room to introduce and develop the various aspects such as just who the other members of the round table (or in this case stone circle) are and what exactly did happen with the professor and the bird.

As this is the accompanying novel to the TV series (which I've not seen) I'm going to assume many of these issues were carried over from budgetary constraints relating to the filmed version but then surely the novelisation would have provided an opportunity to address and repair but evidently not.

If it sounds like I'm giving this a bit of a pasting then please know that I did enjoy it.  It's an entertaining little thing but a flawed one that has left me quite keen to track down the series so I can compare the two.

Buy it here - Raven


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Sunday, 23 September 2018

The Haunted Garden

'World's Beyond' was a late 1980's anthology television series of tales based on the archives of the Society for Psychical Research and it is perhaps the single most genteel and stereotypically 'English' thing I think I have ever watched.

Moments after hearing what sounds suspiciously like a plane crash terminally ill English rose Jennifer (Judi Bowker) meets an American pilot named Ben (Alex Hyde-White) when he unexpectedly walks into her garden one afternoon. Their decision to marry sparks concern amongst her family and friends who have yet to even see hm let alone meet him - although the vicar thinks he does have a familiar sounding name - but they make plans for the wedding all the same.

It features a cast of rock solid jobbing actors such as Bowker whose earliest acting credits are listed as the unlikely sounding pairing of starring roles in 'The Adventures of Black Beauty' and Franco Zeffirelli's life of Saint Francis of Assisi 'Brother Sun, Sister Moon', Hyde-White who is perhaps most known to bad movie fans for playing Reed Richards in Roger Corman's never released movie 'The Fantastic Four' and Moray Watson who gets all the best lines here and whose innate poshness means he has a filmography littered with characters listed as 'Major...', 'Colonel...', 'Lord...' and 'Sir...'  including as 'Sir Robert Muir' in the fifth Doctor serial 'Black Orchid'.

The final piece is a bit of an oddity.  In many ways it feels like a throw back to a very different era which I suppose it is given where the source material came from but it is a gentle little oddity whose ending will leave you with many questions of a practical nature but it has a charm of it's own and it's all so terribly, terribly nice.


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Wednesday, 19 September 2018

The Balloon

You now those mornings when you wake up wondering why-oh-why didn't that doyen of the brain freeze, Slush Puppie, ever make any public information films?  After all, frozen-ish beverage manufacturers are perfectly placed to warn children of the perils of road safety.

Well, you can now rest easy because they did make one.  Boy oh boy did they make one.

It features a very creepy clown (is there any other kind?), some balloons, some product placement, a fabulous proto-hauntological soundtrack by Andrew Hellaby (of freak folk legends 'Comus') and the deaths of several children about which nobody seems particularly concerned.

The UK had a great tradition of offing kids in public information kids by variously dunking them in dark and lonely water, locking them in abandoned fridges, holding sports days on railway tracks or throwing Frisbees at power stations and this is a fine addition to the canon.

Watch it at the link below.


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Saturday, 15 September 2018


John Wyndham
Michael Joseph

Matthew, they thought, was just going through a phase of talking to himself. And, like many parents, they waited for him to get over it, but it started to get worse. Mathew's conversations with himself grew more and more intense - it was like listening to one end of a telephone conversation while someone argued, cajoled and reasoned with another person you couldn't hear. Then Matthew started doing things he couldn't do before, like counting in binary-code mathematics. So he told them about Chocky - the person who lived in his head.

I have a slight thing about reading certain editions of books.  There are quite a few novels I'd like to read but haven't yet because I've not found one with the right cover art.  Chocky was one of them until I scored this rather lovely 1970 2nd impression hardback.

I've a long standing love affair with one Wyndham book in particular (the one with the plants) although I like many of them very much.  I'm a long time fan of (post) apocalypse literature so those books in his canon - The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids, The Kraken Wakes - are the ones that jumped out at me, Chocky less so.  A story of a kid with a telepathic alien chatting in his head never really appealed all that much but I always knew I'd get to it someday and despite my reservations I knew I'd probably enjoy it and I was right.

Chocky is very much what we'd now call a YA novel (but without twinkly vampires) which surprised me as I was kind of expecting something more in line with 'The Midwich Cuckoos' but this is a fairly gentle affair.  Most, if not all, the action happens off the page and we essentially get a second hand account with commentary from Matthew's father.

It's hugely enjoyable and is a very different sort of YA book that I just don't think would fly anymore which is a real shame because it's kinda lovely.

Buy it here - Chocky

Watch the TV adaptation here - Chocky


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Thursday, 6 September 2018

3 Wyrd Things: Kemper Norton

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.

Kember Norton Wyrd Britain 3 Wyrd Things
This month, Kemper Norton.

Kemper Norton is a Brighton based musician with his musical roots firmly planted in the myths, legends and folkore of his native Cornwall.  He describes his music using the deliciously ambiguous term 'slurtronic folk' which nicely encapsulates the scope of his sounds that tap into the same vein of hazily arcane arcadian imagination that runs through artists such as Vashti Bunyan, William Blake, Coil, Alan Moore and Current 93 and which in his hands has led to a body of work that has blended elements of all those mentioned along with a wider appreciation of the various byways and highways of modern cultural life into a bewitching and deeply idiosyncratic body of work.

Having recently welcomed a new addition to his family Kemper has been keeping an understandably low profile of late but with appearences at Cafe Oto (with Air Loom) on September 1st,  Brighton's The Rose Hill (with Alexander Tucker) on September 7th and the Wyrd Wild West Fest in Yeovil on September 22nd in the offing he seems to be making a return to music. His most recent album, 'Toll', on Front and Follow is available on both disc and digital from the label's Bandcamp page.

Pat Barker : Blow Your House Down (Buy it here)

Pat Barker is most famous for her World War 1 “Regeneration” trilogy, which is a wonderful examination of masculinity, violence, class and trauma. Her second novel is a dark and melancholy study of the lives of a group of women making a living as sex workers in the shadow of a serial killer.

Warm, humane and empathetic as well as occasionally terrifying and bleak, Barker’s story foregrounds the economic, moral and personal choices and battles her female characters make and go through without judgement or salaciousness. The unnamed cityscape is harsh and haunted, and the fictionalised Ripper is presented as one more threat to add to the ones these women already face and deal with every day on the streets. A fantastic book.

Under The Skin (Buy it here)

Familiar to many and already highly-regarded, this film only seems to develop in power for me as time goes by. The scene on the beach (fairly early in the film ) is astonishing and repeated viewings have not diluted the feelings of terror and sadness it provokes, or the way it seems to change its perspective and meaning.

It’s maybe the idea of the inhuman observing a human tragedy with a predator’s eye, and how the best of humanity (empathy, courage, love) ultimately means nothing when confronted by nature at its most potent and least forgiving. But I see (and hear) something new in it every time.

Blah Records (e.g Beast Master Swegthousand Lee Scott feat Nah Eeto 2017 )

Blah Records has produced some of the spookiest, funniest, most inventive British hiphop I’ve heard in years.

Here’s a prime example, featuring label “honcho” Lee Scott at his surreal and pithy best and a great contribution from Nah Eeto. They seem to produce great stuff every week. Check out Black Josh, Milkavelli, and the rest of the crew.


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Sunday, 2 September 2018

Tower of Evil

Also known as 'Horror on Snape Island' this early 70s horror has been credited as an early example of the slasher genre and certainly most of the elements are there, remote location, horny naked teens, lots of stabbing and slashing and a psychologically damaged murderer with a thing for pointy implements.

The film concerns two groups of teens - one group seen mostly in flashback thanks to some Prisoner-esque hypnosis techniques - who find themselves on the remote and rocky Snape Island, the first group for fun and frolics and the second for an archaeological dig.  Also accompanying the second group is a detective (Bryant Haliday) hired by the parents of the sole survivor of the first (Candace Glendenning) who is borderline catatonic and accused of her friend's murders.

Like the contemporaneous 'Death Line' ('Raw Meat' in the US) the film shows a definite move away from the gothic creature feature trappings of the Hammer productions into areas more concerned with societal changes and the rise of newer lifestyles which, it seems, will be drenched in blood; an idea that would be returned to again and again in films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, a seemingly endless procession of Friday the 13th and Halloween movies and exploitation movies galore.  Unlike 'Death Line' though it doesn't have an actor of the calibre of Hugh Armstrong to lend pathos to the murderous maniac.

Despite being derided on it's initial release 'Tower of Evil' has aged remarkably well.  It's definitely a product of it's time and it gleefully engages in some, almost, equal opportunity sexploitation as there are bare boobs and bums - of both genders - galore including that of Robin Askwith who (thanks to the 'Confessions of a...' movies) has a bum that's been photographed more times than most people's faces - even in the age of the selfie. But it's well made and in amongst the campier actors there's a strong cast that includes such notables as Jill Haworth, Jack Watson  (Llud in Arthur of the Britons) Derek Fowlds (Bernard from 'Yes Minister'), Anna Palk ('The Earth Dies Screaming') and Dennis Price ('Twins of Evil') and a storyline that toys with the supernatural without ever fully embracing it leaving just a suspicion of what, perhaps, lies behind the murders.

Buy it here - Tower of Evil - Digitally Remastered [DVD] - or watch it below.


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